‘The Cactus’ by O. Henry or William Sydney Porter: Short Story Analysis
‘The Cactus’ penned by American writer O. Henry is a half-modernist and half-Victorian short story about a couple’s misunderstanding. O. Henry is well renowned in the annals of literature for his well-crafted short stories. Most of his stories, if not all, have twists at the end. This short story titled ‘The Cactus’ has a plot twist and anti-climax at the end, which is very heartening. It is common to find O. Henry writing about the theme of not judging the book by its cover or mistaken notions of people. In this story, a self-indulgent, pretentious, and vain young man named Trysdale had lost out in love. His lover had married another man, and he can’t understand what went wrong in their relationship. All he knows is that the day after he proposed marriage to the girl he loved, she sent him a cactus in a red pot through her groom.
Trysdale was a person clothed in the garments of vanity, pride, and conceit. The woman whom he loved was devoted to him and worshipped him as if he were a god. She had put him on a pedestal to which she lit the incense of her love. This signifies a very unhealthy love affair where a partner in a relationship is equated as a god or demi-god. Such adoration makes the person being adored even more conceited and proud. That is what happened to Trysdale. He was not exactly falling in love with the woman who adored him; rather, he loved the way she was devoted to him. She was dedicated to him like a priest to his temple. Trysdale could do no wrong in her eyes, and he was always paid homage to by the lover. He approved of this very unhealthy love equation; he basked in it. Like the Old Testament God, he happily consumed the sacrifice of his lover’s virginal love for him; he used to absorb the oblation without giving her anything positive in return. He never spoke of her plus points; he just absorbed all her praise like a desert absorbs rain without producing any tree or fruit. Trysdale became prouder as the days went by. We realize from the nature of this Edwardian piece that O. Henry is out to prove that pride has a downfall. Trysdale, one fine day decides to marry the girl. He wanted to put her on a pedestal with him, and the only way to do it was for her to marry him.
Coming to the character of the girl, she is described to be purity incarnate. Words such as virginal, shy, childlike, worshipful, and modest are used, but strangely O. Henry does not give her a name. It indicates that she was taken for granted and had no identity of her own as a human being in the mind of Trysdale. To him, she was just his disciple and biggest fan. She worships the very ground on which Trysdale walks. She is always glorifying his many positive attributes. She is the typical early twentieth-century girl-next-door whom any bachelor would love to marry. However, sometimes her adoration took unusual forms of expressing itself. The most significant instance of this was the cactus in the red pot that she sent Trysdale. Trysdale, like most of us, took the literal meaning of the term ‘cactus’ and thought that she was joking with him, or her love had ‘deserted her’, or their love was a barren desert. That is natural for anyone to expect. However, the girl’s interpretation of the cactus was that without him, she was just a mere cactus, in awe of the spring blossom of her life that was Trysdale. If Trysdale had read the tag written in Spanish, ‘Ventomarme’, which means ‘come and take me’, he would have realized that she had said yes to his marriage proposal. When he doesn’t respond the way she thought he would, she feels rebuffed, and her affection cools towards him. In a matter of days, she marries another to whom she gives her heart and soul. She admires Trysdale and so invites him to the wedding. Her brother from South America solved the misunderstanding between Trysdale and the girl after the marriage was over. We who are under the wrong impression that she was a woman of sarcastic temperament are corrected in our thoughts, and she is vindicated.
Coming to the cactus in the red pot it is the story’s title and the reason for all the misunderstanding. It is the symbol of Trysdale failed relationship because he was so fond of telling tall lies about his accomplishments. His lover had stated that a very prejudiced and jealous friend of theirs had mentioned that Trysdale was an expert in speaking Spanish. The man was Captain Carruthers, who belonged to Trysdale’s club. He was a half-brained idiot who, with many club members, was regaling with Trysdale. Trysdale had then spoken some Spanish, which he picked up from sentences from the back of a dictionary. Trysdale, the pretentious man that he was, had faked to the club members that he knew Spanish. In reality, he did not know one word of Spanish. Instead of correcting his lover’s misunderstanding, he assents to the lie that he knew the language. Once a liar, always a liar. The lover believed him. He proposed to her, and she said she would tell him her answer by the next day. The fact is, she already knew in her heart that she wanted to marry him. However, she wanted to display the symbol of her thirst for Trysdale, and so the following afternoon sent him a cactus via her groom. In keeping with the fact that he knew Spanish, on the tag was penned in Spanish, not only the name of the South American cactus’ botanical name but also indirectly her answer to his proposal. She thirsted for him. Since Trysdale couldn’t understand Spanish, he never deciphered her answer. The message she got was that:
- Despite her ardor in sending the cactus as the symbol of her thirst for him, he had rejected her.
- Or that he was always a liar and really didn’t know Spanish and so was unable to decipher the writing on the tag.
- Or that he was not sincere in his love for her.
- Or finally that he was not worth her ardor and worship because he was a shallow man who told lies.
The clue given in the story that she loved him was when they met a few days later at a dinner party, and she looked lovingly at him to see what he would say or do. Because he ignored her, she became cold and stiff towards him. Thus, their foundationless love story tumbled down instantaneously. She married another and dedicated that same ardor in her love to him the way she did for Trysdale. He couldn’t believe she could love another, but when he saw her looking up at her groom, he realized that at last, he was forgotten.
The twist in the tale is conclusive, crisp, and convincing. It is told in a cheerful tone by the South American resident brother of the bride. The brother is carefree, light-hearted, and loved to drink. He told Trysdale the Spanish meaning of the cactus because it was a common sight in Punta where he used to live in South America. Punta Cana is a resort town in the municipality of Higüey, in La Altagracia Province, the Dominican Republic’s easternmost province. There is a mention in the story of the ‘thorn’ of the cactus that would pierce Trysdale. This cactus thorn would metaphorically or indirectly deflate the bubble of his love story. It would show him a mirror to his true nature, which was made up of lies, pride, and vain thoughts.
There is a sensual element in describing the ardor of the couple in this story. One would almost seem to feel that Trysdale was besotted by his lover’s virginity, which is why he wanted to marry her. However, the description of their ‘cuddling’ sounds very much like lovemaking or sex. O. Henry masterfully covers it up with a few words that Trysdale was only proposing to his lover and not seducing her.
Like most O. Henry’s short stories, this story deals with the theme that appearances are deceptive, and things are not what they seem. This story is very similar to his brilliant short story titled ‘Hearts and Hands’. I have reviewed this short story on my blog; you can check it out for your reference.
I have always loved O. Henry as a short story writer. I have his entire collection of short stories. It is remarkable how, despite owning his whole short story collection, I have reviewed very little of his work. I must read some more of his writings.
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