‘At Arms with Morpheus’ by O. Henry: Short Story Analysis
‘At Arms with Morpheus’ is a realistic short story published in 1911 in the short story collection Sixes and Sevens. The story was penned by American writer O. Henry. O. Henry is the pen name of William Sydney Porter. His short stories always end with a twist, and the tone of each story is mostly witty. Here, too, the story ends with Tom Hopkins revealing to his faithful friend Billy that he had indeed left a plain and poor Southern American girl after he had inherited wealth from his aunt. Tom is ready to telegraph the girl he loved that he was returning to her. The irony of it all was that Billy, the narrator, had never known that his wealthy friend Tom Hopkins had left an innocent girl in the lurch after he came upon wealth and luxury. Billy had conjured up the tale of the Southern girl Tom had left behind so that he could keep the foolish Tom awake, for he accidentally had four grains of morphine instead of quinine. So that Tom should stay awake, Billy tries to taunt him about his manhood because he had ruined the heart and love of an innocent girl. Billy was trying to be Romantic and imaginative for the sake of Tom’s safety, thinking that they would laugh over the matter later. That did not happen.
Another short story penned by O. Henry which has a similar theatrical twist towards the end is O. Henry’s short story ‘Hearts and Hands’, which I have analyzed here. Like in ‘Hearts and Hands’, the central themes in ‘At Arms with Morpheus’ are money, affection, and deception. These two short stories of O. Henry truly bring out that first appearances are deceptive and not to be taken seriously. Tom and Billy were medical students living and studying in early twentieth-century New York. Tom Hopkins was a gem of a human being. He was a young man from the Southern part of America, and nothing could irritate or annoy him. His chivalry and honorable manner were well known, and as it is mentioned in the text, he had an old-fashioned chivalric reverence for women. He had come into a lot of wealth which became the envy of all his friends in the Medical College and boarding rooms. Billy and another MD student who lived above Billy were envious of Tom’s wealth. However, the young doctors in training had never thought their wealthy friend Tom to be anything but a wonderful old-fashioned human being. Dramatically it comes to light that Tom Hopkins had indeed hurt a young girl’s feelings and sentiments; his old flame from the South.
The young woman’s story comes to light because of the four grains of morphine that Tom had accidentally taken into his system instead of quinine. Morphine is an analgesic and narcotic drug obtained from opium and used medicinally to relieve pain. Morphine comes from the Ancient Greek term Morpheus. Morpheus is a Greek god associated with sleep and dreams. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he is the son of Sleep, and he appears in dreams in human form. From the medieval period, the name began to stand more generally for the god of dreams or sleep. Taking crushed, chewed, or dissolved forms of sustained-action morphine could cause a fatal overdose. Taking too much morphine can be dangerous. If you’ve taken an accidental overdose, you may feel very sleepy, sick, or dizzy. You may also find it difficult to breathe. In severe cases, you can become unconscious and may need emergency treatment in the hospital.
This is what happens to Tom Hopkins as he accidentally swallows four grains of morphine instead of something on the second shelf of Billy’s medicine cabinet to relieve him from a cold. Billy was intelligent and alert enough to immediately call the elderly and highly experienced Doctor Gales and another young MD from the room upstairs to help him with Tom. As a team, they go through the significant part of the evening and night giving Tom medication, walking him up and down the place, punching, kicking, and even slapping Tom to keep him awake. The scene appears to be serious, but the witty prose of O. Henry lightens the narrative. The young MD took particular pleasure in giving Tom a hard kick because he was jealous of him and wanted to kick a millionaire for once in his life. According to Billy, even Doctor Gales took pleasure in slapping and pinching Tom because he wanted to be financially rewarded when Tom came to his senses and realized that Doctor Gales had saved his life. You notice that Tom is a person who is envied by all the people he interacts with. The envy is subtle, but it is there and is evident.
Billy seems the closest to Tom, but he too is very envious of Tom’s riches. However, Billy, the narrator, seems like a genial sort. Doctor Gales orders Billy to keep Tom awake for at least an hour. Billy should then check Tom’s respiration and pulse, and once it came to normal, he could allow Tom Hopkins to sleep. Therefore, the story’s main action happens in that one hour where Billy ponders how to keep Tom awake. He decides to hurt Tom’s manly ego and accuse him of deserting a girl from the Southern part of the country when he came to New York.
There are several other factors related to this whole scenario that I would like to highlight:
- Tom Hopkins may have been rich and a doctor, but despite having studied medicine for a whole term and being well versed in Therapeutics, he was foolish and hasty enough to swallow the morphine. Therapeutics is the branch of medicine that is explicitly concerned with the treatment of disease. The therapeutic dose of a drug is the amount needed to treat a disease.
- It would have been tough for Billy to handle Tom on his own as Tom was a heavily built personage of 198 pounds which is 89 kgs, and that is indeed very heavy. So, Billy had to try his level best to keep Tom awake through conversation. He, therefore, conjurers up a pack of lies about an old flame. He does not realize that what he is speaking of was, in fact, accurate and that Tom was listening and taking in everything he was telling him in an accusatory fashion.
- Billy derides Tom saying that he would not allow Tom to reside with him because he was not an honorable gentleman and was worse than a cad. A cad is a man who behaves irresponsibly or dishonestly. Billy accuses the rich Tom that he had left the plain Southern girl because he felt that she was too simple for New York city life. Billy derides and scorns Tom by saying that New York’s Fifth Avenue was not good enough apparently for the plain Southern girl in the eyes of Tom. Fifth Avenue is a major thoroughfare in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It stretches north from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village to West 143rd Street in Harlem. It is considered one of the most expensive and elegant streets in the world.
- The words of Billy were falling hard on the conscience of Tom. The words had a positive effect in two ways as it not only saved Tom’s life by keeping him awake, but it also made Tom resolve to return to the girl of his youth. Little did Billy know that he was saving two lives that day as he derided his friend Tom.
The story ends with Tom waking up the next day dressed and ready to telegraph the girl of his past. Billy is shocked and the short story titled ‘At Arms with Morpheus’ ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, for we don’t know whether the young girl accepts Tom Hopkins back into her life. Billy is left dumbfounded, realizing that what he had said the night before was indeed true. Though not the most shocking of O. Henry’s short stories, the story of Billy at arms with and fighting off the effects of morphine is a pleasant read nevertheless.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer O. Henry. I used to read a lot of his works when I was a young schoolgirl. I always recommend my students to read the short stories of O Henry; his works are classics. If you are a parent or educator trying to get your children or wards to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on my blog’s products page. I hope to read and analyze more short stories by O. Henry soon.
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Eva Hnizdo says
It’s a long time since I read O’Henry’s short stories, but I loved them. Well written, full of humanity.