“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 gives him some control over the bumbling criminals who kidnap him. The kidnappers, Sam and Bill, are also in a fantasy world: they believe that their harebrained schemes won't blow up in their faces. Because Sam and Bill are poor and small-time crooks, and Johnny is just a child, fantasy and role playing emerge as key tools of survival for these relatively powerless characters.
Johnny's various role-playing fantasies give him real power over people and circumstances, showing the power of imagination. For example, Johnny's fantasies give him control over Bill. In reality Johnny is Bill’s captor, but Johnny conscripts Bill into a fantasy world in which Johnny is Red Chief and Bill is "Old Hank, the Trapper, Red Chief's captive." Bill’s acquiescence to this fantasy makes him lose power—it leads him to all manner of demeaning and ridiculous actions, such as walking through the woods on all fours while Johnny rides him like a horse, and these difficulties ultimately make him give up on their ransom plan altogether.
Furthermore, Johnny’s imagination transforms his circumstances. While another child might be frightened or at least uncomfortable sleeping in a cave with the strangers who have kidnapped him, Johnny immediately reconfigures his kidnapping as a camping adventure. Sam observes, “The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself,” and Johnny declares, “I never had such fun in all my life.” This fearless refusal to acknowledge reality unnerves the men, giving Johnny the upper-hand. And Sam and Bill are terrified of Johnny's role-playing for good reason: they are often the victims in his fantasies. Though these fantasies might start as games (“I'm to be scalped at daybreak” or “I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun”), it’s never clear where fantasy ends and reality begins for Johnny—for instance, Bill awakes screaming to find Johnny “industriously and realistically trying to take Bill's scalp.” Their genuine fear of Johnny’s fantasies reflects that fantasy and imagination grant Johnny real power over them.
While Johnny unambiguously gains power through fantasy, Sam and Bill's delusions are a little more complicated. Imagination and fantasy often give them hope for a better future (the kidnapping idea itself occurred to them in “a moment of temporary mental apparition”), but their delusions also bring trouble. Their elaborate fantasy plans for the kidnapping are unrealistic and delusional, illustrated by Sam’s description of how “this kidnapping idea struck us…during a moment of temporary mental apparition.” Detailing an elaborate message drop in a wheat field, near a creek, “at the bottom of the fence-post, opposite the third tree,” Sam believes his scheme would “commend itself to professional kidnappers.” However, even though Sam thinks that the plan is what professional kidnappers would do, the plan is unprofessional and ridiculous. Sam's schemes—since he's the brains of the team—give him a certain sense of superiority, evident when he assesses the townspeople of Summit “as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.” He's certain the “constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical bloodhounds” will be no match for him. His delusions of grandeur lead him to underestimate Ebenezer, however, who easily outfoxes him.
Despite falling prey to delusion, Sam and Bill do prove that they understand the power of fantasy when, at the end of the story, they use imagination to manipulate Johnny into returning to his father. Sam explains, “We got him to go by telling him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears the next day.” In other words, they gain power over him by getting him to go along with a fantasy, just as Johnny had done to Bill. Overall, O. Henry shows that illusions are a double-edged sword: some fantasize, as Johnny does, in order to make life more bearable and fun, while some suffer under delusions, as Sam and Bill do, imagining they are making a go of it when they are really just making a mess. Regardless, none of the characters who live in make-believe come out on top, which suggests that fantasy—while it may make life more bearable or result in minor shifts in power—is not the currency of real power. After all, Ebenezer Dorset, who has no illusions at all, is the only winner in the story’s final accounting.
Imagination and Play ThemeTracker
Imagination and Play Quotes in The Ransom of Red Chief
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.
“He's all right now…We're playing Indian.”
“I like this fine. I never camped out before.”
[T]hey were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It's an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.
I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the countryside for the dastardly kidnappers… There was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay exposed to my view.
I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid... it ain't human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat.
“You are the hoss,” says Black Scout. “Get down on your hands and knees. How can I ride to the stockade without a hoss?”
“You’d better keep him interested,” said I, “till we get the scheme going. Loosen up.”
“The boy is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times…that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of 'em ever was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been.”
Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and sits down plump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid for his mind. And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole job through immediately…
We took him home that night. We got him to go by telling him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears the next day.