Despite being released from prison at the start of “A Retrieved Reformation,” burglar Jimmy Valentine clearly hasn’t learned his lesson. An expert at cracking safes, Jimmy quickly returns to a life of crime and continues to rob banks throughout the area. Only after seeing Annabel Adams outside one such bank does Jimmy abandon his criminal ways, and, upon falling in love with her, ultimately renounce them forever. Through Jimmy’s development from delinquent to honest man, author O. Henry argues for the transformational power of love, through which even the slickest of criminals can find redemption.
O. Henry presents Jimmy as totally unrepentant upon his initial release from prison. On the contrary, having been through this process many times before, Jimmy greets freedom “in a tired kind of way” and jokes with the warden about his own criminal history. Instead of emphasizing any sense of graciousness, O. Henry points out that Jimmy is surprised that his freedom—obtained via a pardon from the governor—has taken so long: “when someone with as many friends on the outside as Jimmy Valentine had is received in the ‘stir’ it is hardly worth while to cut his hair,” the author writes.
Once on the outside, Jimmy notably ignores the beauty of the natural world from which he has for ten months been separated—“disregarding the song of the birds, the green of the trees, the smell of the flowers”—and instead heads for a restaurant to indulge in a bottle of wine and a high-quality cigar. Almost immediately afterwards, he meets up with his old pals and begins a slew of increasingly-higher stakes robberies. These moments reveal Jimmy to be deeply-entrenched in the world of crime, sheltered from serious consequences for his actions, and desirous of the luxurious comforts such a lifestyle affords—details that, in turn, make his eventual transformation all the more powerful.
Falling in love with Annabel Adams spurs Jimmy to reject his easy life of crime. Jimmy first sees Annabel on the steps of her father’s bank—the anchor of his new life directly confronting that of his old. Annabel changes Jimmy immediately: he “looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.” He takes on a new identity and abandons “the old business”—that is, robbing banks—for an honest job in a shoe shop. In addition to winning Annabel’s hand, he finds both financial and social success and the “the respect of the community.”
Ralph D. Spencer, as he now calls himself, is “the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine’s ashes.” Jimmy even plans to give away his burglary tools to a friend from his past, which suggests that he has no intention of ever returning to his former way of life. In the letter he writes to this friend, Jimmy refers to Annabel as an “angel”—an explicit admission that it is by her love that he feels redeemed. “She believes in me,” he writes, “and I wouldn’t do another crooked thing for the whole world.”
Yet however honest his new life, Jimmy’s redemption is tempered by the fact that he has been lying to his fiancée since they met. Indeed, Jimmy plans to continue to evade the consequences of his past by moving “West, where there won’t be so much danger of old scores brought up against me.” As with O. Henry’s reference to Ralph Spencer being born from the ashes of Jimmy Valentine, this moment reminds the reader that while love has begun to save Jimmy, his new start has been granted not simply by the renunciation but also the erasure of his former, criminal self.
Notably, only upon being willing to accept the consequences of his past is Jimmy able to achieve lasting salvation. Before he’s able to get rid of his tools or head West, Jimmy must go to the bank with Annabel and her family as Mr. Adams, Annabel’s father, excitedly shows off a new vault. When Annabel’s niece, Agatha, accidentally becomes trapped inside, Jimmy breaks open the safe to rescue her—effectively revealing his past, or at least suggesting he is not who he claims to be. This action is not done impulsively. Jimmy knows that he is not merely risking his new life, but sacrificing it, as “with that act, Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.” The act of saving Agatha reflects Biblical notions of martyrdom; Ralph D. Spencer dies so that Agatha may live, but also so that Jimmy Valentine may be absolved of his sins and thus allowed to live as a free man.
Indeed, afterwards, he appears to have accepted his fate and greets detective Ben Price—who has long been following Jimmy and is currently waiting outside to arrest him—almost like an old friend. “Well, let’s go,” Jimmy says. “I don’t know that it makes much difference now.” Ben, however, simply says, “I don’t believe I recognize you,” and strolls away. Having witnessed Jimmy’s heroism—made genuine by the fact that he had been willing to risk his newfound happiness in the name of helping someone else—Ben decides to let Jimmy go. This final act of mercy implies that, in Ben’s eyes, Jimmy is truly reformed. While Jimmy had worked to make an honest man of himself and no longer be the criminal he once was, more meaningful redemption has required owning up to his past sins. Whether Annabel will accept Jimmy is left unsaid, but O. Henry’s story suggests that her love has already, irrevocably changed him for the better.
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Love and Redemption Quotes in A Retrieved Reformation
[T]he warden handed Jimmy his pardon, which had been signed that morning by the governor. Jimmy took it in a tired kind of way. He had served nearly ten months of a four-year sentence. He had expected to stay only about three months, at the longest. When a man with as many friends on the outside as Jimmy Valentine had is received in the “stir” it is hardly worth while to cut his hair.
“Now, Valentine,” said the warden, “you’ll go out in the morning. Brace up, and make a man of yourself. You’re not a bad fellow at heart. Stop cracking safes, and live straight.”
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.”