‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ by O. Henry: Short Story Analysis
‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ is a realistic, humorous short story penned in 1906 by the eminent American short story writer O. Henry. O. Henry has outdone himself in the realm of satirical humor and irony. The story is narrated by Lovey, a no-breed pet dog, about his obese and unbalanced mistress whom he hates. Lovey feels pity for her henpecked husband. Lovey consults with a neighboring, black-furred fox-terrier on how he could make his master happy. The fox-terrier mentions that his own master visited saloons and drank all the time, which kept him in good spirits (sorry for the pun). That was why his master loved taking him out for a walk because he got time to drink. Lovey decides that the next evening when his master would take him for a walk, he would guide his master to the nearest saloon and encourage him to drink. Lovey succeeds in his mission of uplifting the mood of his master. The master, now wholly drunk, decides to let Lovey go free. When Lovey refuses his offer, the master decides to leave his wife and takes Lovey to the Twenty-third street ferry. He decides to rename the dog with the proper name of Pete, which the yellow dog approves. The short story is highly humorous but could be challenging to understand because of the current news and culture topics mentioned by O. Henry that even a twenty-first-century American reader will find difficult to follow.
When one does an in-depth study of this seminal short story titled ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ one understands the humor and smiles at the satire and irony. There are, however, too many current facts mentioned in the text like ‘pictures of Bryan’, which refer to the pictures of the US President William Jennings Bryan. The Mount Pelee horror mentioned refers to the 29,000 deaths in the deadliest eruption of the 20th century, the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique in the year 1902. These and a host of several other 1906 facts form the bulwark of O. Henry’s short story titled ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’, making the story difficult to understand, especially when you have to do a Google search on half the facts. This satire may indicate that O. Henry did not visualize a foreign reader reading his short story. The readership in mind was probably the contemporary citizens of the USA. Therefore, this is a period short story, at the wee end of the Edwardian era and the birth of the modernist era of English Literature. I will not decipher and deduce every 1906 historical facts mentioned in this short story because one can easily do so if one refers to the internet. And one will have to refer to the internet, especially if one is a global reader.
The story begins with a satire on all talking animal narratives of the nineteenth century, which is the Victorian era, especially in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book Stories, a favorite classic among children even today. O. Henry, through the canine voice of Lovey, ridicules Kipling and all the childish names he had kept for his talking animals. Except for Baloo the bear, every other name mentioned by O. Henry is fictitious. Is this a sign of some indirect racism attack on the part of O. Henry to Indian names and words used by Kipling? That is a fascinating question. I personally love Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and if you like it and want your child to read more classics similar to it, you can check out my multiple award-winning book Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. I have also reviewed a short story where Rudyard Kipling’s name is mentioned in another context but at the beginning of a classic horror story. The short story’s title is ‘A Face in the Dark’ by Ruskin Bond. You can check that out for reference. However, Lovey’s story won’t be as innocent as the talking animals’ stories in The Jungle Book. Lovey is more realistic. He is the no-breed dog of an obese and disgusting female mistress who kisses him, cuddles him, and baby talks nonsense to him which Lovey does not like one bit. Lovey acts like a middle-aged American cynic who couldn’t care less about the world around him but who had a heart of gold. He is keenly aware of the American situation and lifestyle of humans. He especially considers his plus-size mistress’ lifestyle to be sickening and felt that if her husband knew how disgustingly she spent her time while he was out, he would never have married her. Lovey goes to the extent of saying that all men wouldn’t marry if they knew what their female love-interest did while alone. This is undoubtedly an explicit sexist and gender-biased remark. What women do in their free time is their business not to be judged by society, so long as the women in question are not hurting anyone. In the name of comedy, I’ve noticed that O. Henry has indeed gone out of his way to ridicule plus-size alpha women, which does not go down well with me but to analyze that aspect would require another blog post.
So, Lovey hates his mistress for a reason steeped in sexism. He feels sorry for his master, who washes the dishes back at home and is forced by his plus-sized wife to take Lovey for a walk every evening. The master detests his marriage and hates the organ grinders who played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March when he walked Lovey on the streets of New York. An organ grinder is a street musician who plays the barrel organ. Lovey’s master needed a push to get out of his marriage, provided by his dog. After having had a solemn word with the neighbor black fox-terrier, Lovey and his master land up in a saloon to drink alcohol. Lovey’s master kept on drinking hot Scotches or toddy one after another. His brand was Campbell Scotch Whiskey. Lovey mentions that when his master had finished all the alcoholic products of Scotland except the rye bread, he got up from his place to leave with the dog.
Lovey’s master then goes to the Twenty-third street ferry or the then railway car with Lovey to get away from his dominating wife. He christens Lovey as ‘Pete’, and the story ends with Lovey wagging his tail happily. Lovey’s master was so intoxicated that he wanted to go to the Rocky Mountains with Lovey far away from his obese wife. We are left to conjecture what their adventures would be like, but the story ended on a positive note for both master and dog.
A few takeaway points for you before I close this analysis:
- The yellow dog was sold by an old lady whom O. Henry comically nicknamed Old Mother Hubbard. Compared to the nursery rhyme, this old lady was a swindler and bullied Lovey’s mistress into buying him as a pet. Lovey’s mistress thought that she was buying a rare pedigree puppy.
- Lovey used to sleep in a cheap New York apartment on an old satin underskirt in the corner of the house. The obese mistress had spilled port wine on it, and since she had no use for it had allowed Lovey to use it as a rug. Notice that Lovey’s mistress didn’t care much about anything except herself and had certainly bought Lovey thinking he was a rare breed dog.
- O. Henry satirizes the primeval Noah’s Ark story saying that the ancestors of Lovey were chased into the Ark, who was in his mistress’ eyes of a very noble breed of dogs. That was why she was even ready to enter Lovey into a Siberian bloodhound prize competition.
- On her own, Lovey’s mistress only bothered about herself. She would put certain disgusting creams on her face, make small talk with blue-collared workers, read old letters, and continuously eat and drink odd things that makes us feel disgust at her food choice. However, before her husband would show up, she would clean the place and sit tidily, pretending that she had spent the whole day knitting or doing needlework.
- Lovey’s mistress had a fondness for trinkets and curiosities. She packed her small apartment with antique objects that were ridiculous. Lovey considered her husband to be one of the curiosities with which she filled her apartment. In other words, he was but a ‘thing’ for her to be used. I, too, have a fondness for curiosities. I like collecting them, and when I am stuck in my writing all I do is look at my collectibles, and I’m back at work. If you want to read more about my life with books and my love of curios, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on my blog’s products page.
- There is a similarity of looks between Lovey and his master. His master was sandy-haired with a sandy moustache and was henpecked. In O. Henry’s descriptive words, he was toucan pecked, flamingo pecked, and pelican pecked. He was so much under his wife’s thumb that it felt like all the birds in the kingdom Ave had their bills pecking at the poor man. Certain one liner like these really make this short story a humorous read.
- According to Lovey, the way his mistress spoke to him made even a book of musical comedy that was absolute nonsense to seem like some of Epictetus’ maxims. Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher best known for his works The Enchiridion (the handbook) and his Discourses, both foundational books in Stoic philosophy written down by his student Arrian. Lovey seemed very distinctly angry with his mistress because she used to speak to him in a ridiculously babyish manner and kiss and cuddle him all the time, which unlike most dogs, he did not seem to appreciate.
- Lovey, more than anything else, wanted to be treated and spoken to with respect. He never considered himself a dog to be cuddled but a dog to be respected and taken seriously.
I always enjoy rereading and analyzing short stories penned by the American writer O. Henry. I have his entire collection in my possession and hope to review more of his short stories soon. I’ve reviewed many of O. Henry’s short stories on my blog insaneowl.com which you can check out for reference. I will review and analyze more American literature and non-fiction books in the coming days until January. I am doing this to celebrate America’s rich literary heritage because we are amid a most critical American election. If you are looking for American bookish content, this is the site to keep watching. I hope to read more books by American writers in the coming days.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan