Essential to “The Cop and the Anthem,” O. Henry’s story of a homeless man’s ill-fated attempts to get arrested in order to avoid sleeping in the cold, is an examination of the cruelties and inescapable realities faced by underclass citizens at the turn of the twentieth century. Soapy, the story’s protagonist, intentionally commits a string of crimes in order to be taken to the “insular haven” of jail on Blackwell’s Island, where he can survive through the winter. To this end, Soapy adopts various criminal personas; even as he personally considers himself a “gentleman,” he plays the role of the deadbeat diner who can’t pay his bill, the vandal who smashes a storefront window with a brick, a “masher” who harasses a window-shopping woman, a belligerent engaging in disorderly conduct, and a thief. That he must lean into such delinquent behavior in order to obtain the basic necessity of shelter suggests the cyclical nature of homelessness, poverty, and crime. O. Henry, who himself spent time in jail for embezzlement and understood the immense difficulty of re-entering society after any sort of conviction, further uses this story to condemn indifferent or prejudicial treatment of the poor, which itself only serves to thrust vulnerable individuals deeper into the dire circumstances they wish to escape.
However eloquent and light-hearted his tone, O. Henry immediately establishes the harsh realities of living in on the street. Soapy, along with many others, sleeps on a park bench. Such accommodations are far from comfortable; the night before his criminal adventures begin, for instance, Soapy had slept under three newspapers, “distributed beneath his coat, about his ankles and over his lap,” which “had failed to repulse the cold as he slept on his bench near the spurting fountain in the ancient square.” This image helps readers sympathize with Soapy’s plight and understand the urgent motivation behind his subsequent misdeeds. The notion of people shivering under discarded newspapers in this opulent, “ancient” square further creates the sense that the city—however grand—has failed many of its vulnerable residents. To be sure, Soapy’s “hibernatorial ambitions” are modest enough: where “his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter,” Soapy just wants a warm bed. O. Henry’s language here humanizes Soapy, establishing that he, too, is a New Yorker, and is just less fortunate—rather than less deserving—than others. The stark contrast between tropical getaways and Soapy’s dream of spending the winter in the local jail subtly rebukes the extravagance of the wealthy, and underscores that, in comparison, Soapy’s wish should be easily achieved; if some New Yorkers are flying to islands across the globe for fun, this man should at least be able to find local shelter from the cold.
Having established the simplicity of Soapy’s desires, the difficulty of fulfilling them becomes all the more frustrating. O. Henry wrings ironic humor out of the increasingly ridiculous situations in which Soapy finds himself as he attempts to get arrested, yet these moments inherently reflect the unending insecurity and instability of Soapy’s life—characteristics that surely make it all the more difficult to rise above his circumstances. Soapy not even being allowed to enter a nice restaurant further highlights the prejudicial treatment of those in poverty, whom polite society would apparently prefer to render invisible. Though Soapy presents himself at the restaurant as best he can—clean-shaven, with a “decent” suit jacket and tie—the head waiter conveys him “in silence and haste to the sidewalk” the moment he spots Soapy’s “frayed trousers.” Of course, Soapy had been hoping to enter the restaurant in order to swindle them out of a free meal and subsequently get sent to the “haven” of Blackwell Island. Yet that jail is a ‘’haven” evokes an even more explicit connection between poverty and essentially forced criminality; denied more honest avenues to success or financial stability, Soapy resorts to crime, thus further entrenching himself in the cycle that landed him in this situation in the first place.
Soapy’s ultimate ambition to reform his life, however noble, thus seems decidedly unlikely; how is he to find a job if he cannot even enter a restaurant, or procure a bed? Again, the story suggests this is not due to personal failings so much as a society that would prefer to ignore, hide, and/or punish the realities of homelessness. Indeed, that Soapy is eventually arrested for loitering appears to be the ultimate assertion that he is forever stuck in this lifestyle not entirely of his own accord, and in part because the rest of the world refuses to lend a hand to those in situations like his. Standing outside a church and imagining taking charge of his destiny, Soapy seems poised to finally lift himself from poverty and become a contributing member of society. Yet it is in this moment that a police officer approaches Soapy and asks what he’s doing; when Soapy responds, “Nothin’”, the officer arrests him. A man with nowhere to go has been arrested for doing nothing—that is, the only thing he really can do. Men like Soapy cannot extract themselves from the cycle poverty, homelessness, and crime, the story thus ultimately suggests, because they are criminalized simply by virtue of their existence.
Poverty, Homelessness, and Crime ThemeTracker
Poverty, Homelessness, and Crime Quotes in The Cop and the Anthem
For years the hospitable Blackwell’s Island had been his winter quarters. Just as his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter, so Soapy had made his humble arrangements for his annual hegira to the Island.
Soapy, having decided to go to the Island, at once set about accomplishing his desire. There were many easy ways of doing this. The pleasantest was to dine luxuriously at some expensive restaurant; and then, after declaring insolvency, be handed over quietly and without uproar to a policeman.
Soapy had confidence in himself from the lowest button of his vest upward. He was shaven, and his coat was decent and his neat black, ready-tied four-in-hand had been presented to him by a lady missionary on Thanksgiving Day.
The policeman’s mind refused to accept Soapy even as a clue.
In a cigar store he saw a well-dressed man lighting a cigar at a swinging light. His silk umbrella he had set by the door on entering. Soapy stepped inside, secured the umbrella and sauntered off with it slowly. The man at the cigar light followed hastily.
And the anthem that the organist played cemented Soapy to the iron fence, for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and immaculate thoughts and collars.
He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet: he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering.