O. Henry’s story chronicles the rehabilitation of Jimmy Valentine, who transforms from a career safecracker and thief into an honest and productive member of society. When Jimmy is first introduced, it is as an incarcerated criminal, and his identity undergoes several more transformations before he is ultimately redeemed by his love for Annabel Adams. Though Jimmy’s new life with Annabel as Ralph D. Spencer—shoe salesman and all-around good guy—bears very little resemblance to his prior life of crime, in the end of the story Jimmy must draw from his past to free Agatha from a safe. With the progression of Jimmy’s character, O. Henry implies that while outward identity can be easily changed, it is impossible for people to escape who they really are.
Upon his release from prison, Jimmy’s identity transforms from inmate to free man. O. Henry writes, “The warden gave him a cigar, and shook hands. Valentine, 9762, was chronicled on the books ‘Pardoned by the Governor,’ and Mr. James Valentine walked out into the sunshine.” Prison Jimmy is a different man entirely than the man he is on the outside. On the inside, Jimmy is received with indifference—it is “hardly worth while” to even cut his hair. Yet on the outside, Jimmy is received with cigars and sunshine. Prison Jimmy is reduced to a number, and he is easily left behind. The identity of Mr. James Valentine, however, is rather short lived. At his release, Jimmy dons “a suit of the villainously fitting, ready-made clothes and a pair of the stiff, squeaky shoes that the state furnishes to its discharged compulsory guests”—prison-issue clothing brands him an ex-convict, and which is little better than “Valentine, 9762” in the eyes of society.
After returning to his apartment, Jimmy emerges in “tasteful and well-fitting clothes.” With his “taste for good society” and his “impressive” manner, the real Jimmy Valentine makes his first appearance. With his tools in hand, Jimmy is ready to return to work cracking safes. Through Jimmy’s transformation, O. Henry suggests the difficulty Jimmy would have had have maintaining his high-end lifestyle as “Mr. James Valentine.” Honest employment is likely to be difficult for an ex-con, and since Jimmy was released from prison with only a bus ticket and five dollars, he has very few options outside of cracking safes.
When Jimmy later falls in love with Annabel Adams, he assumes an entirely new identity. As Jimmy sees Annabel for the first time outside her father’s bank, he “looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.” Jimmy’s love-at-first-sight experience hasn’t caused him to forget his name; it has caused him to forget that he is a thief. However, since Jimmy Valentine is a thief, he walks to the nearest hotel and signs in as Ralph D. Spencer, a prospective businessman. Jimmy needs a new name to designate his new identity and obtain a fresh start.
Jimmy quickly morphs into “Mr. Ralph Spencer, the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine’s ashes.” While living in Elmore, he builds a successful business selling shoes and wins Annabel’s heart. Henry writes, “Socially he was also a success, and made many friends.” Jimmy’s life as Ralph Spencer is proof of his rehabilitation. He is finally living the straight life; he works a respectable job, is engaged to be married, and contributes positively to society. Jimmy’s love for Annabel has, on the surface, completely transformed him.
Yet though he has transformed into Ralph D. Spencer, traces of Jimmy Valentine remain. Jimmy’s slick style is unmistakable, and the young hotel clerk, himself “something of a pattern of fashion,” “perceived his shortcomings” in the presence of Ralph. Jimmy is widely known for his good taste and fashionable appearance, as is Ralph. Appearance is too important to Jimmy to abandon his tastes with his new identity.
Additionally, when Annabel’s father shows off his new safe, Ralph responds with “courteous but not too intelligent interest.” With his advanced knowledge of safes, Ralph must make a concerted effort to appear ignorant. While Jimmy may have forgotten what he was, he certainly hasn’t forgotten what he knows. Lastly, when Agatha, Annabel’s niece, is inadvertently locked in her grandfather’s safe, Jimmy again transforms. Before cracking the safe, Jimmy, under the guise of Ralph Spencer, asks Annabel for the rose she is wearing—as if to remember her by—and “with that act Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.” Jimmy can’t crack the safe as Ralph, and despite living in Elmore as Ralph Spencer for an entire year, Jimmy Valentine has never been far away.
With Jimmy’s frequent transformations, O. Henry argues the complexity of identity. Jimmy’s identity changes according to his needs and circumstances; however, a large part of him always remains Jimmy Valentine. Ralph D. Spencer doesn’t completely “pass away” when Jimmy opens the safe either. Life as Ralph has made Jimmy a better man, and Ralph survives in the form of Jimmy’s newfound selflessness. Opening the safe is an admission of Jimmy’s true identity, and for the first time, Jimmy is honest about who he really is. O. Henry’s story ultimately highlights both the changes and the consistencies of Jimmy’s identity; while Jimmy can easily become Ralph D. Spencer, he will never be able to stop being Jimmy Valentine.
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Change and Identity Quotes in A Retrieved Reformation
The clerk handed him a railroad ticket and the five-dollar bill with which the law expected him to rehabilitate himself into good citizenship and prosperity. The warden gave him a cigar, and shook hands. Valentine, 9762, was chronicled on the books “Pardoned by the Governor,” and Mr. James Valentine walked out into the sunshine.
A young lady crossed the street, passed him at the corner and entered a door over which was the sign “The Elmore Bank.” Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.
Mr. Ralph Spencer, the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine’s ashes—ashes left by a sudden and alternative attack of love—remained in Elmore, and prospered.
“Annabel,” he said, “give me that rose you are wearing, will you?”
Hardly believing that she heard him aright, she unpinned the bud from the bosom of her dress, and placed it in his hand. Jimmy stuffed it into his vest-pocket, threw of his coat and pulled up his shirt-sleeves. With that act Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.
From that time on [Jimmy] seemed to be unconscious of the presence of any one else. He laid out the shining, queer implements swiftly and orderly, whistling softly to himself as he always did when at work. In a deep silence and immovable, the others watched him as if under a spell.
“Hello, Ben!” said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. “Got around at last, have you? Well, let’s go. I don’t know that it makes much difference, now.”
“Guess you’re mistaken, Mr. Spencer,” he said. “Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggy’s waiting for you, ain’t it?”