As Jimmy is released from prison the warden tells him, “You’re not a bad fellow at heart. Stop cracking safes, and live straight.” According to the warden, to live straight—and thereby be a good person—Jimmy must work an honest job. At the same time, however, the fact that Jimmy’s so good at being a thief elicits a sort of begrudging respect. O. Henry presents the dedicated detective Ben Price meanwhile, as an embodiment of ethics that serves as a foil to Jimmy’s life of crime. Yet despite being an expert crook, Jimmy is not a bad man. On the contrary, he proves to be quite decent, and this irony is only intensified by Price’s own actions at the end of the story when he disregards the dictates of his profession and lets Jimmy go free. Jimmy and Ben Price cannot be viewed in simple terms of good or bad, criminal or cop; with these characters, then, O. Henry upends traditional notions of ethics and morality, forcing readers to judge these men based on more than just their profession.
O. Henry portrays Ben Price as an extremely capable police detective, which is proof of his “good citizenship and prosperity.” When Jimmy returns to his apartment after being released from prison, he finds it “just as he left it,” including Price’s collar-button on the floor. The button, torn from Price’s shirt during the physical scuffle of Jimmy’s arrest, is evidence of the detective’s dedication to his job. Along with establishing their history, the fact that Jimmy immediately notices the button—such a tiny, insignificant object—suggests that Price’s investigation and the subsequent arrest had a lasting effect on him. It also represents the extraordinary effort put forth by Price when he “overpowered Jimmy to arrest him.”
Price is obviously very good at his job and does not waste his time and skills with small or trivial cases. After Jimmy is released from prison and returns to a life of burglary, he has to steal a considerable amount of money before again attracting Price’s attention. It is only after Jimmy relieves the Jefferson City bank of five thousand dollars that his crimes are considered “high enough to bring the matter up into Ben Price’s class of work.” And as soon as word gets out that Price suspects Jimmy and has resumed his prior pursuit, “people with burglar-proof safes felt more at ease.” He vows to catch Jimmy and make him pay, claiming, “He’ll do his bit next time without any short-time or clemency foolishness.” Price is determined to do his job as a man of the law, and the public believes in his abilities.
However, O. Henry portrays Jimmy as a hard worker who is likewise dedicated to his profession. Like Price, Jimmy is very good at his job. He makes quick work of burglar-proof safes and his adept skills leave “no clue to the author.” In fact, it is only the level of difficulty of his jobs that gives Jimmy away. Price notes, “That’s Dandy Jim Valentine’s autograph. He’s resumed business. Look at the combination knob—jerked out as easy as pulling up a radish in wet weather. He’s got the only clamps that can do it.” Only a superior safecracker could have pulled of the robbery, and Jimmy is known for impressive work.
Furthermore, as noted by Price, Jimmy is the only thief who has access to the proper tools for the job. Jimmy’s safecracking tools, described as the “finest set of burglar’s tools in the East,” include “two or three novelties invented by Jimmy himself, in which he took pride.” Jimmy is so dedicated to his work as a safecracker that he has even engineered his own tools in an effort to do his job better.
When Agatha, the niece of Jimmy’s fiancé, accidentally locks herself in her grandfather’s safe, Jimmy quickly cracks the lock. As Jimmy works to free Agatha, he lays out his special tools “swiftly and orderly” while “whistling softly to himself as he always did when at work.” After ten short minutes, Agatha is free and Jimmy has broken “his own burglarious record.” Just like Ben Price, Jimmy is precise and proficient, and he clearly enjoys his work.
Despite his criminal profession, O. Henry depicts Jimmy as a good man with redeemable qualities. When Jimmy is first introduced, he is hard at work in the prison shoe-shop “assiduously stitching uppers.” Jimmy’s time is prison is limited and his release is already fixed, yet he still approaches this assigned and mundane work with care and attention. Jimmy is also pleasant and displays an easy sense of humor when joking with the warden. Furthermore, the warden speculates that Jimmy was sent to prison in the first place because he “wouldn’t prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society.” While Jimmy is certainly not innocent, he displays integrity and loyalty when he refuses to give up a fellow thief.
Additionally, after Jimmy is pardoned by the governor and released from prison, he makes his way to the train depot after first enjoying a good meal and a bottle of wine. Right before Jimmy boards his train, he “tosse[s] a quarter into the hat of a blind man sitting by the door.” Upon his release from prison, Jimmy was given only a five-dollar bill, which must be nearly gone by this point, yet he is kind and generous—despite having very little to give.
Even though Jimmy does not initially desire to live an honest life, he quickly gives up safecracking for the love of Annabel Adams. His devotion to her is obvious when he risks everything to save Agatha after she becomes locked in Mr. Adams’s safe. By breaking into the safe, his true identity as a criminal is revealed. Jimmy selflessly sacrifices his identity as Ralph D. Spencer, the honest shoe-maker—jeopardizing his happiness and future marriage—in order to save Agatha and spare Annabel the death of her niece.
To simply brand Jimmy a morally bankrupt criminal is to overlook his many admirable qualities. Henry’s depiction of Jimmy muddles the line between good and bad, and Ben Price’s unexpected reaction to Ralph D. Spencer further complicates this grey area. After witnessing Jimmy’s reformation in the form of Agatha’s rescue, Price pretends not to recognize Jimmy—effectively breaking the law and allowing Jimmy to get away with his crimes. Price’s decision to let Jimmy go is not entirely ethical, but this does not define him as a whole, just as Jimmy cannot be defined solely by his criminality. His kindness and loyalty to others implies that he is an inherently a good person—just as the warden suggests.
Work, Ethics, and Morality ThemeTracker
Work, Ethics, and Morality Quotes in A Retrieved Reformation
“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.”
“How was it you happened to get sent up on that Springfield job? Was it because you wouldn’t prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society?”
Pulling out from the wall a folding-bed, Jimmy slid back a panel in the wall and dragged out a dust-covered suitcase. He opened this and gazed fondly at the finest set of burglar’s tools in the East. It was a complete set, made of specially tempered steel, the latest designs in drills, punches, braces and bits, jimmies, clamps, and augers, with two or three novelties invented by Jimmy himself, in which he took pride.
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.”