The Ransom of Red Chief

Letters Symbol Icon

Letters—the medium through which Sam communicates his ransom demands to Ebenezer—represent the power conferred on people by class and education. Letters are associated with educated people (people who are well-educated are even called “lettered” sometimes), and Sam uses letters to try to assert power over Johnny’s father. The first letter Sam sends to old man Dorset is intended to be “peremptory,” meaning final and not open to challenge or appeal, but it’s anything but that—the letter is not persuasive, as Ebenezer writes back refusing their demands and making a monetary demand of his own. The letter’s failure can be seen as a result of Sam’s failure to impersonate someone with power and class. For one, his ransom plan is overly-complex and betrays his lack of criminal experience. Moreover, his self-conscious attempts to appear educated often seem stilted—for example, his use of the word “philoprogenitiveness” earlier in the story (an arcane way to refer to the love of one’s children) seems to betray his desire to seem educated and high-class, inadvertently revealing his low status. By contrast, Ebenezer speaks and writes with simple confidence, telling Sam and Bill that he thinks they are “a little high” in their ransom demand. His letter includes no big words or unconventional usages—he speaks in plain English, since his money and status speak for themselves. Ultimately, Ebenezer emerges victorious, collecting a fee from Sam and Bill to take his son back rather than paying them ransom. But O. Henry does not depict this victory as morally righteous—on the contrary, the conniving, upper-class Ebenezer has outfoxed two desperate men with big hearts. Sam and Bill’s letters, therefore, show that their low class and homespun education put them at a disadvantage when trying to advance their own position in the world—a reality that is unfortunate and undeserved.

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Letters Symbol Timeline in The Ransom of Red Chief

The timeline below shows where the symbol Letters appears in The Ransom of Red Chief. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Ransom of Red Chief
Crime, Violence, and Empathy Theme Icon
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...to worry, and says that he’s headed to town that night to deliver the ransom message, having seen little evidence in the surrounding area of any concern for the lost boy.... (full context)
Crime, Violence, and Empathy Theme Icon
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After Bill and Johnny shake hands, Sam tells Bill they should send the “peremptory” ransom note to Ebenezer. Bill reminds Sam that he’s stood by him through many hardships and difficult... (full context)
Crime, Violence, and Empathy Theme Icon
Imagination and Play Theme Icon
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Sam writes the letter to Ebenezer asking for $1500 in large bills in exchange for his son. The answer... (full context)
Imagination and Play Theme Icon
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...Bill that he should keep the child occupied until he returns from delivering the ransom note. As Sam leaves the two, Bill gets down on all fours to play the part... (full context)
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...Johnny has gone missing. Satisfied that the plan is finally working, Sam posts his ransom note to Ebenezer in Summit and leaves to return to the cave and await a response.... (full context)
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...caught by counterplots” and then, believing no one is watching, comes down to get the note and returns to the cave. Once there, he observes the note was written in a... (full context)
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Ebenezer’s letter declares that Sam’s ransom demand is too high, and he makes a counter-proposition: they are... (full context)