O. Henry’s short story, “After Twenty Years,” explores the conflict between personal loyalty and professional duty. The story takes place on the night two childhood friends, Jimmy and Bob, had agreed to meet before they parted ways 20 years earlier. Since that time, however, the two friends have become very different people, a fact which challenges their loyalty to one another. In particular, Jimmy’s discovery that Bob is a criminal forces him to choose between remaining loyal to his friend or upholding his duty as a police officer. This decision is especially complicated given the nature of their meeting. If he arrests Bob, he is not only betraying a lifelong friend, but he is betraying a friend who has remained loyal to him by traveling over 1000 miles to uphold a 20-year promise. However, letting Bob go free would mean disregarding his responsibility as a police officer and his obligation to serve justice.
In the end, Jimmy decides to arrest Bob, showing his commitment to upholding the moral standards expected of him as a police officer. However, he does not want to be the one to arrest his friend, and so he sends another officer to do it for him. It is left to the reader to decide whether refusing to arrest him personally is a sign of genuine loyalty to Bob, or a sign of disrespect and cowardice. After all, though he is not the one to physically arrest Bob, Jimmy is still responsible for his arrest. As such, “After Twenty Years” illustrates the challenging choices individuals in positions of authority face when balancing their personal values and professional responsibilities. Jimmy’s decision to prioritize duty over loyalty shows the difficult choices people must make and the sacrifices—or perhaps compromises—they must make to serve the greater good.
Loyalty vs. Duty ThemeTracker
Loyalty vs. Duty Quotes in After Twenty Years
As the policeman walked up to him the man spoke up quickly.
“It’s alright, officer,” he said reassuringly. “I’m just waiting for a friend. It’s an appointment I made twenty years ago.”
We figured that in twenty years each of us ought to have our destiny worked out and our fortunes made, whatever they were going to be.
But I know Jimmy will meet me here if he’s alive, for he always was the truest staunchest chap in the world. He’ll never forget. I came a thousand miles to stand in this door to-night, and it’s worth it if my old partner shows up.
You bet! I hope Jimmy has done half as well. He was a good kind of plodder, though, good fellow as he was. A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him.
His hand was steady when he began to read, but it trembled a little by the time he had finished.
Bob: I was at the appointed place on time. When you struck the match to light your cigar I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago. Somehow I couldn’t do it myself, so I went around and got a plain clothes man to do the job.