The Ransom of Red Chief

by

O. Henry

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The Ransom of Red Chief: Allusions 2 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Allusions
Explanation and Analysis—Red Chief:

After Sam and Bill kidnap Johnny and take him to a cave in the woods, Johnny makes Bill play with him, imagining himself to be the violent Native American “Red Chief” and Bill to be his white captive. This is an allusion to common racist tropes and stereotypes about Native Americans that were prevalent in the early 20th century, when O. Henry was writing this story.

The stereotypes about Native Americans underlying Johnny’s make-believe game become clear in the way Johnny acts out the character of Red Chief, as well as in Bill’s explanation of the game to Sam:

“Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?”

“He’s all right now,” says Bill, rolling up his trousers and examining some bruises on his shins. “We’re playing Indian […] I’m Old Hank, the Trapper, Red Chief’s captive, and I’m to be scalped at daybreak. By Geronimo! that kid can kick hard.”

Johnny’s language here—referring to Bill’s character as “cursed paleface” and referring to himself as “the terror of the plains”—signals the commonly held racist belief that Native Americans were inherently violent and enjoyed targeting white people. Sam explaining that he is Red Chief’s “captive” who is “to be scalped at daybreak” furthers this incorrect trope. Though O. Henry was likely just trying to capture the dynamics of a common game white children played at the time, he is also (unintentionally, perhaps) alluding to the kinds of misconceptions and discriminatory beliefs underlying this sort of make believe.

Explanation and Analysis—Ebenezer:

O. Henry’s decision to name the wealthy and miserly character in the story “Ebenezer” is likely an allusion to another famous literary Ebenezer—the affluent and tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Like it is now, A Christmas Carol was well-known at the time, and O. Henry probably expected his readers to understand the connection that he was making between the two men.

Sam’s introduction to Ebenezer in “The Ransom of Red Chief” captures some of his shared qualities with Dickens’s Ebenezer:

We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Ebenezer Dorset is a moneylender who earns his wealth from the interest on unpaid debts. Also like Scrooge, Dorset is incredibly stingy with his money, as evidenced by the fact that he is a “collection-plate passer,” meaning that he does not add his own donation to the collection plate passed around in church but instead simply hands it on to the next person.

It is notable that, at the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has had a change of heart and learned a lesson about the importance of generosity. Ebenezer Dorset in “The Ransom of Red Chief,” on the other hand, remains greedy and manipulative at the end of the tale. This demonstrates how, unlike Dickens, O. Henry is not writing a moral tale, but a lighthearted comedy.

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