‘Girl’ by O. Henry: Short Story Analysis
‘Girl’ is a suspenseful, humorous piece though the humor which consists of the ‘twist in the tale’ comes only at the end of the short story. ‘Girl’ has been penned by American short story writer O. Henry also known as William Sydney Porter, one of the greatest short story writers the world has ever known. A broker, Hartley, uses a detective’s services to find the residence of a young lady named Vivienne, who is an excellent and exceptional cook. On the information provided by the detective, Hartley goes Eastwards on an Eastbound car or train. He finds Vivienne in a rundown place. Vivienne agrees to become his cook or enter his employment. However, this fact is not divulged till the end of this suspenseful story, and by the tone of the narration, one wrongly presumes that Hartley and Vivienne were lovers. O. Henry’s satirical style misleads us into believing that we are reading an eloping couple’s conversation. In reality, it is the story of a man desperately seeking a good cook’s service because his cook is most of the time intoxicated. A similar story to ‘Girl’ is Saki’s ‘The Open Window’; you can find my analysis of it here.
In the short story, one thinks one is reading the chronicle of a lover-turned-stalker leading to elopement. This is just O. Henry’s usual way to trick us with his excellent prose and narrative style. The story is theatrical with scenes that are meant to deceive us but, in reality, are clues about the true nature of the business. There are a few clues mentioned by O. Henry that make us realize that the story is about Hartley’s gastronomical desires than his supposed elopement with the cook Vivienne. In the first paragraph, we are told of the red hot spicy smells entering Hartley and his fellow broker Robbins office. Other scents that enter the office are the smell of lemon peelings and train smoke. The lemon peelings indicate the tale’s gastronomical twist, while the smell of the train suggests that Hartley would have to make a journey to get this story moving.
One tends to look shocked at Hartley when the detective arrives on the scene to inform him that he has found Vivienne’s address. He ominously says that he has ‘found where she lives.’ Hartley is self-conscious in the presence of his fellow broker Robbins. Robbins rushes out of the office to his metropolitan pursuits thinking like us that his dear friend is after some young woman, and he does not wish to be involved in the whole matter. Hartley then decides to go to Vivienne’s new residence and to coax her to work for him. He mentions to the detective that he did not want the woman to be shadowed or stalked because there was no need to. However, we feel a sense of suspense when we read this part of the story. We think that Hartley is a man with hidden motives because of his serious and nervous manner. We believe him to be a man with an agenda; however, his only plan is to get a good cook for his two-storied cottage home in Floral Hurst. He already has a very hyper and naïve wife who cannot stand Heloise, their 24/7 inebriated cook.
Note that we are told about Robbins’ nightly pursuits at the beginning of the short story: first-night shows and hotel palm rooms. First Nights are the first public performance of a play or show, while a palm room is an exotic and elegant lounge or dining room decorated with lavish palms on the inside. In short, Robbins loved to have a gala life and probably visited these exotic hotels for sex and great dinners. We can surmise that Robbins could afford his lavish lifestyle by the fact that he was a successful broker and doing well in his business at age fifty. His lifestyle makes us suspicious that even Hartley is a man out to cheats his wife for another woman. Robbins’ introduction and exit make us or instead forces us to think in this manner, which is entirely erroneous.
Hartley comes to the ramshackle home where Vivienne was residing in the care of the McComas. She had first been employed at the Montgomery’s where Hartley had first seen her. When he sees the squalor the young lady was currently living in, he speaks so earnestly and softly with Vivienne that it sounds as if a lover is talking to the one he desires. He uses phrases that make us think that he and Vivienne were lovers:
- I want you.
- I must have you.
- You’ve kept me in suspense.
- I’ve got to have you.
- No more refusals.
When one reads over these lines, one laughs to think about how we were mistaken in thinking these were the words used:
- By a lover.
- But in this case, it was being used for a cook, which in my opinion, is someone more important in one’s life than a lover!
Hartley promises Vivienne a good home and all the pleasures she needed because he sees the squalor she is presently living in. When a comically dressed Spanish gentleman named Townsend comes after Hartley to seek the employment of Vivienne, Hartley acts brutishly and declares war on Townsend and all like him who dare go between him and his Vivienne. Townsend is annoyed by the bearish trend in the market and, to add a touch of sour grapes, falsely mentions that he had come to Vivienne’s residence to find a plumber and not a cook. But Hartley is brutish and like an animal, and we think he is desperate that no one should come between him and his woman when actually, he does not want anyone to come between him and his cook. The disgracing of Townsend is very comical when one reads in between the lines. The humorous addition to this story is not unusual in O. Henry’s works, but he does not always write humorous, satirical pieces. However, someone similar to him in style but mostly writes humorous pieces is the British writer Saki also known as H.H. Munro or Hector Hugh Munro. I have analyzed a few of Saki’s short stories, which you can check out here.
Then comes the topic of Heloise. We think Heloise to be Hartley’s wife, whom Vivienne cannot stand and wants out of the house before she steps into the house. Hartley thinks this over and agrees that his food is more important than old relationships. He agrees to get rid of Heloise that same night, and Vivienne could enter his house the following day. This makes Vivienne happy. She is of bi-racial descent, probably Latin American, which was the usual stereotypes used in those days to mean that such a person would be an excellent cook. Note the subtle use of the name Heloise in this short story. The name Heloise is a girl’s name of French origin meaning “healthy; wide”. Usually, people do not think much of French cooking; that is and was the stereotype. Also, where physicality was concerned, she was plus-size, and so not someone Hartley was happy to have in his home. But Hartley sees that Vivienne looks nice, is slender, and dresses well, which is perfect by his calculations to be a good cook in his home. He employs the Latin American or probably Spanish Vivienne over the drunk French cook.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story penned by the American short story writer O. Henry. I hope to read, review, and analyze more American literary fiction and non-fiction content this month. Thereby, I wish to celebrate the literary heritage of the USA. I have the whole collection of O. Henry short stories in my possession. I am very passionate about the rich quality of O. Henry’s master storytelling skills. His short stories are classics, and I continuously recommend my students to read them. If you are an educator and wish to get your ward to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on my blog’s products page. I hope to read and analyze more of O. Henry’s short stories soon.
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