The short story “After Twenty Years” explores the relationship between time and identity. In fact, the central tension of the story is whether the two main characters, Jimmy and Bob, once close friends who grew up together in New York, will keep their 20-year-old promise to meet and will pick up their friendship where it left off. However, in the 20 years since they last saw each other, they have taken vastly different paths in life. Having remained in New York his whole life, Jimmy Wells has become a responsible and respected police officer, a fact reflected physically in his “watchful eye” and “stalwart form.” By contrast, in his search for riches out West, Bob has become a criminal. Though he has found success—evident from his diamond-covered scarf pin and handsome watch—he has paid the price for it, as he is now wanted by the law in Chicago. As such, time has transformed two old friends into enemies, though it is not obvious at first. In fact, when they first meet in the promised location it is as though they are strangers. Though Jimmy recognizes Bob, he also recognizes him as the wanted man in Chicago, and so he does treats Bob as a stranger and hides his own identity. Bob, meanwhile, is too focused on telling his own story to register that the police officer is his old friend. However, by the end of the story both friends ultimately realize how much their respective identities have changed, a fact demonstrated by the new names they are given. Jimmy becomes “Patrolman Wells,” while Bob becomes “Silky Bob” (apparently his criminal nickname). In a twist, the friends successfully meet after 20 years, only to discover that they are now different people and can no longer be friends. As such, the story suggests that time can not only change one’s identity, but turn the best of friends into strangers, or even enemies, in the process.
Time and Identity ThemeTracker
Time and Identity 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.
“You’re not Jimmy Wells,” he snapped. “Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man’s nose from a Roman to a pug.”
“It sometimes changes a good man into a bad one,” said the tall man. “You’ve been under arrest for ten minutes.”
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.