The Ransom of Red Chief


O. Henry

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The Ransom of Red Chief Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on O. Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of O. Henry

Born in the American South during the Civil War, William Sydney Porter worked variously on a ranch, in a land office, and as a bank teller. He married in 1887, began writing stories, and in 1894 he started a short-lived humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone. Porter joined the Houston Post as reporter, columnist, and cartoonist. In 1896 he was indicted in court for misappropriation of bank funds. Many believed he was innocent, and he fled to Honduras to mount a defense. Unfortunately, his wife fell gravely ill, and he returned to Austin before arranging a full accounting. He was convicted and sentenced shortly after his wife passed away. He served three years and three months in prison and wrote stories of adventure based on his experiences in Texas and Honduras under the nom de plume O. Henry. Upon his release, he went to New York City and continued writing for magazines and newspapers. Despite his popularity as a writer, he suffered from financial struggles and alcoholism. He married a second time in 1907 and died in 1910. His posthumous stories, translations, and adaptations for film and television attest to the enduring appeal of his work.
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Historical Context of The Ransom of Red Chief

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, and he was famous for his "cowboy" image, embracing a strenuous lifestyle of robust masculinity. In addition, the scouting movement, as it was called, including the founding of the Boy Scouts in England in 1909 and the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. This is particularly relevant to the simple outdoor living and camping featured in this story. “Teddy” Roosevelt was also known for championing a progressive vision of fairness for the average citizen, including conservation of national parks and breaking up trusts, and these concerns are all consistent with the cave-living rough men of this story who do battle with the prominent money lender in town.

Other Books Related to The Ransom of Red Chief

O. Henry was a prolific writer, both as a journalist and as the author of hundreds of short stories. “The Gift of the Magi” is one of his most famous tales, and it is frequently anthologized as a classic part of American literature. Despite this, many literary critics dismiss O. Henry for his well-known “trick” endings, and his work continues to be excluded from some major literary anthologies, notably Harold Bloom’s 2014 The Western Canon. Despite this controversy, O. Henry’s reputation grows year by year, in part due to the prestigious and highly coveted O. Henry Award, first funded in 1918 by the Society of Arts and Sciences. His talent, humor, and interest in working class people in rural and small-town America has often led to apt comparisons with Mark Twain. His work is also comparable in style to the French writer Guy de Maupassant, who used plot twists (though with a darker, less humorous tone). O. Henry, like de Maupassant, often uses irony and satire in his stories, while criticizing wealth inequality and the suffering of lower classes of society.
Key Facts about The Ransom of Red Chief
  • Full Title: The Ransom of Red Chief
  • When Written: 1910
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1910
  • Literary Period: American Literature, early 20th century
  • Genre: short story/humor
  • Setting: Rural small-town America
  • Climax: Ebenezer responds to the ransom demand with his own demand for payment.
  • Point of View: First person from Sam’s perspective

Extra Credit for The Ransom of Red Chief

Historic Preservation. The Austin courthouse in which O. Henry was convicted is now O. Henry Hall, which houses the administrative offices of the University of Texas system.

Devouring Books. William Sidney Porter reported he was a voracious reader as a teenager. “I did more reading between my thirteenth and nineteenth years,” he wrote, “than I have ever done in all the years since, and my taste at the time was much better than it is now, for I read nothing but the classics.”