The Ransom of Red Chief


O. Henry

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Themes and Colors
Crime, Violence, and Empathy Theme Icon
Imagination and Play Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Outsiders Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Ransom of Red Chief, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Crime, Violence, and Empathy

In “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two small-time crooks named Sam and Bill conspire to kidnap young Johnny Dorset and hold him until his wealthy father pays a ransom. However, as soon as Sam and Bill lay eyes on Johnny, his violence towards them—both physical and verbal—eclipses the violence of the kidnapping, which actually seems haphazard and comedic rather than cruel. Despite Johnny’s violence, O. Henry depicts him as a sympathetic character—his behavior stems from…

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Imagination and Play

“The Ransom of Red Chief” is a story full of fantasy and delusion. From the very beginning, even the setting itself suggests the deluded nature of the world of the story: the town is “as flat as a flannel-cake,” but its name—Summit—ironically evokes mountain summits, of which there are obviously none. Fittingly, most of the characters in Summit live in a fantasy world. Johnny constructs a child’s dreamland of cowboys and Indians, a fantasy that…

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In “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Sam and Bill kidnap ten year-old Johnny for ransom. Once he is their captive, however, Johnny treats them more cruelly than they do him, and getting rid of him ends up costing them money. One might expect a story about a failed ransom scheme to have a clear moral lesson, but “crime doesn’t pay” is not exactly the point of this tale. As a writer who spent three years…

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Bill and Sam arrive in small town Summit, Alabama, determined to take advantage of the backwards country folk and make fast money by kidnapping Johnny, the child of a wealthy local businessman. However, their lack of knowledge of or respect for local power structures and people complicates and derails these outsiders’ elaborate plans. By underestimating Ebenezer Dorset (who outwits them) and his son (whose antics torment them), their ransom plan falls apart and they…

read analysis of Outsiders