‘Hearts and Hands’ by O. Henry: Short Story Analysis
William Sydney Porter, or O. Henry as he is famously known, is the writer of this very interesting short story titled ‘Hearts and Hands’. The title informs the astute reader that the story is going to deal with handcuffs, the quizzical nature on which hand or hands the cuffs are cuffed, as well as the emotional side of the characters involved. The marshal in this story who was a glum-faced man showed empathy towards Mr. Easton the criminal and interchanged the role of criminal and marshal between them. The marshal wanted to make it seem that Easton was the real marshal and not him. He was doing this to save Easton’s reputation in front of the pretentious young woman Miss Fairchild, who was from Washington. There are two other passengers watching the whole charade and one of them knows that the ‘real marshal’ could be recognized whose left hand was cuffed, the idea being that marshals never cuffed their strong arm that is the right hand to a criminal in handcuffs. So, even though the glum-faced man said he was not the marshal, we know he is because his left hand or ‘weaker’ hand was cuffed to Easton and not the other way around.
O. Henry through his ‘twist in the tale’ gets the two passengers in the story to answer our question related to the handcuffs, that is, who was the real marshal, the glum-faced man, or Easton. It is through O. Henry’s unparalleled wit that we realize when we think it over how we were fooled by the real marshal. The glum-faced man indeed had his heart in the right place and so spoilt his own reputation by giving Easton the title of a marshal at least for a moment in the B & M Express.
However, things were being taken too far by Miss Fairchild. She was so fascinated by Easton being the marshal that she was almost getting ready to settle down with him in the West. Do remember that the B & M Express where this story takes place is traveling towards the East. The real Marshal and Easton were going to Leavenworth prison while Miss Fairchild was going back to Washington. It was Washington’s elite but pretentious, superficial crowd, that had made Easton desperate enough for more money, that he had taken to counterfeiting in the west until he was caught by the glum-faced marshal. The marshal feels that Easton would one day be free and start a new life. He didn’t want Miss Fairchild to spoil Easton’s name back home and therefore he made the switch. Notice that the marshal frames his sentences in such a way that he neither tells the whole truth nor does he lie. The following is said plainly by him:
- They both were going to Leavenworth.
- The prison term was seven years for counterfeiting.
- Easton should speak a good word in favor of the glum-faced man.
- That way it would make it easier for him there.
- A marshal always handcuffs himself to his prisoner.
- Mr. Easton knows his business.
As you notice, the real marshal is a man with a real keen eye for analyzing people’s characters and how to answer such people who are only carried away by external beauty. Miss Fairchild gets so carried away by the lie that she finds the whole idea fascinating. Easton is not only a good-looking young man but also a very cool customer. He is not at all uncomfortable that Miss Fairchild had seen him handcuffed nor is he ashamed about what he has done. He admits brazenly that it was to ‘keep up’ with the Washington crowd that ‘he had to do something’ and that ‘money has a way of flying away’. Therefore, Easton is a cheat, a liar, but a pleasant-looking fellow. However, he was still the criminal, though his exterior form was goodly-looking, unlike the glum-faced and roughly dressed marshal. This indicates to us the old cliched proverb that ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
When the marshal realizes that things are getting out of hand, he asks to be taken to the smoker part of the eastbound B & M Express. Miss Fairchild is left in her seat with the wrong notion that Easton had come to the west to become a marshal. She would I guess invariably share this news with everyone in that pretentious and materialistic group in Washington. In this group, there was a certain Ambassador who used to call upon Miss Fairchild because he liked her. Easton remembers this from his past and asks Miss Fairchild whether she felt the Ambassador was better than a Marshal. This is a sign of old rivalry in which Miss Fairchild being a woman of conceit throws the whole idea to the wind saying that she was never interested in the Ambassador and in any case, she never liked the Ambassador. She wants to curry favor with Easton because now he was a marshal. She wanted to settle down with him as she found it grand to be the wife of a good-looking marshal. Indeed, Miss Fairchild was a woman who would do anything to her advantage. She was extroverted, very proud, and liked people to notice her. She looked down on commoners but was very friendly with good-looking people and rich people from her friend circle.
The two other passengers who were listening to the conversation were very amusing characters. The first one was astute, intelligent, and comprehended the real matter and easily identified the real marshal. His friend was dull and impressionable as he got fooled by the glum-faced man. He mentions that Easton was ‘too young to be a marshal’. To which his companion can’t believe that his friend had not caught on to the real matter. The story ends in a question format leaving us who are not so knowledgeable wondering indeed who was the real marshal. We only have to realize that the ‘real marshal’ was the one with a ‘good heart’ and the ‘correct hand’.
There are a few take away points in this story which is as follows:
- The marshal mentions that Easton should speak up for him when they got to Leavenworth prison. To Miss Fairchild, it would have seemed that he wanted to be patted on the back by the marshal when in reality, he just wanted that the prisoner would tell the people ‘in the pen’ that he was well looked after by the marshal. Probably, the marshal would be given a raise for it?
- Miss Fairchild, to show that she was keen on settling in the West, tells of her ailing father and how she and her mother spent the summer in Denver.
- The ‘butterfly days’ of Easton were over and now it was time for him to spend his seven years in prison.
- Even Easton trying to go on with the charade of the role switch spoke to Miss Fairchild in a veiled manner like the marshal.
It is always a pleasure to analyze an O. Henry story. I read this one in the year 1997 when I was in the third grade and it still has a charm of its own. I hope to review more of O. Henry’s short stories soon. He is indeed one of the best prose writers in the short fiction genre.
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