The fact that it’s nearly impossible to judge characters based on class indicators in O. Henry’s story suggests that these indicators are both flawed and arbitrary. As in much of O. Henry's work, markers of social status are often misread and can prove misleading. For instance, Soapy mistakes a prostitute for a well-to-do young woman and finds himself confused for a rowdy Yale student. Soapy also seems to speak and think eloquently, and the language O. Henry uses to describe him is distinctly elevated—affording a certain empathy to this member of the lower class and also suggesting a similarity (or, at least, lack of meaningful difference) between Soapy and the higher class people he runs into. What’s more, many members of this "upper class" prove no better or more refined than Soapy, which makes the story inherently critical of prejudicial snobbery.
Social status in “The Cop and the Anthem” is frequently determined by appearance, which in turn is shown to be deceptive. In the first restaurant he tries to enter, for example, Soapy’s “telltale trousers” identify him as being of a lower-class than the other patrons, and he is accordingly kicked out. Not long after, however, he is misidentified by the police as both a drunken “Yale lad” and a football player. Soapy himself misidentifies people based on appearance. In his encounter with the prostitute, for example, he believes the window-shopping woman to be “of a modest and pleasing guise,” while the woman believes Soapy to be a potential customer. This dual misidentification happens again later in the story, when Soapy sees a “well-dressed” man with a silk umbrella, and he and Soapy both misidentify each other as people belonging to higher rungs of society. Soapy is surprised, then, to learn that the supposed gentlemen had in fact stolen the umbrella—just as Soapy himself intends to. In each of these cases, appearance is easily manipulated and clearly a faulty method of determining social status.
O. Henry goes further in his critique of class hierarchy by pointing out the meaningless of that status in the first place. Despite “The Cop and the Anthem” being a story about a homeless man with no money to his name, the distinction between Soapy and more privileged members of society is actually rather blurry. The narrator uses learned, dandy-like vocabulary (“soporific,” “eleemosynary”), which elevates Soapy to a certain status within the story. However, it also underscores the foppish, jaunty tone of the story, and stands in contrast to the fact that it’s about a homeless man’s struggle to survive. When Soapy speaks, he often uses a street-smart tone that indicates he understands both grammar and metaphor (“Ah there, Bedelia! Don’t you want to come and play in my yard?”), an indicator of education and power. By contrast, when characters in positions of power above Soapy use dialogue, they often use grammatically incorrect slang. “Where’s the man that done that,” says one cop. “No cop for youse,” says a waiter. “Lave them be,” says another police officer.
One of the ironies of Soapy’s desire to be lodged at Blackwell’s Island is that it lines up with the migratory vacation fantasies of the rich. Fortunate New Yorkers head off to Palm Beach and the Riviera, and Soapy heads off to his own island getaway at Blackwell’s. For a man with no money, Soapy displays a surprising knowledge of food and wine. He enters his first restaurant with plans to order roasted duck, Chablis, Camembert, a demi-tasse, and a cigar, and it’s only his clothing that differentiates him from the rich—not his knowledge of fine food and drink.
Yet even as O. Henry points to indicators of social class as shallow, he nevertheless reveals how class insulates certain members of society from facing repercussions for their actions—underscoring the essential injustice of class prejudice and suggesting the specific means by which class heirarchy maintains itself. Soapy receives a different reaction from the waiters in the first restaurant he’d attempted to infiltrate. In the first, fancier restaurant, upon his being found out, “Strong and ready hands turned [Soapy] about and conveyed him in silence and haste to the sidewalk […].” The restaurant notably wants to avoid a scene, and his treatment is rude by relatively civil. By contrast, in the second, less swanky establishment, “Neatly upon his left ear on the callous pavement two waiter pitched Soapy.”
When Soapy is later misidentified as both a drunken “Yale lad” and a football player, he isn’t arrested because the police have instructions from their higher-ups to “leave them”—i.e. presumably upper-class Ivy League students—“be.” This in turn points to the differential standards of treatment in either societal tier—tiers that, the story insists, are arbitrary, yet it’s clear nevertheless have a direct impact on an individual’s experience of the world.
There is a strong element of randomness to “The Cop and the Anthem,” a story that portrays indicators of social status as murky, misleading, and often so arbitrary as to be meaningless. This is what ultimately what paints Soapy in such a heartbreaking and empathetic light, as it suggests that wealth and power are not obtained through hard work and determination, but rather they are randomly doled out in large doses for some and meager doses for others.
Society, Power, and Class ThemeTracker
Society, Power, and Class 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.
A young woman of a modest and pleasing guise was standing before a show window gazing with sprightly interest at its display of shaving mugs and inkstands, and two yards from the window a large policeman of severe demeanor leaned against a water plug […] It was Soapy’s design to assume the role of the despicable and execrated “masher.”
“’Tis one of them Yale lads celebratin’ the goose egg they give to the Hartford College. Noise; but no harm. We’ve instructions to lave them be.”
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.