The Cop And The Anthem by O. Henry, 1904
The magic trick:
Repeating a conflict several times before changing the nature of the solution being sought in order to expand the story’s scope
Every story needs a conflict, right? Well, this story sets up a conflict immediately. Soapy, a homeless man, needs to get arrested so he can get a warm jail cell for the winter cold. OK, so he has a goal. We watch him try to accomplish this goal in several different ways, failing each time. Some of it is funny, much of it is actually pretty sad.
Finally, at the end, the music of a church organ touches him so that he seeks a long-term solution to his problems. The problem remains, but the solution expands, opening up the reader to a new level of thought regarding the story’s issues. It’s an interesting way to execute a story. And that’s quite a trick on O. Henry’s part.
The moon was above, peaceful and bright. There were few peo- ple passing. He could hear birds high above him.
And the anthem that came from the church held Soapy there, for he had known it well long ago. In those days his life contained such things as mothers and flowers and high hopes and friends and clean thoughts and clean clothes.
Soapy’s mind was ready for something like this. He had come to the old church at the right time. There was a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He saw with sick fear how he had fallen. He saw his worthless days, his wrong desires, his dead hopes, the lost power of his mind.
And also in a moment his heart answered this change in his soul. He would fight to change his life. He would pull himself up, out of the mud. He would make a man of himself again.
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This story reminds me of something you would read in Reader’s Digest and say, “how ironic!” But it also makes me wonder what happened next.