During my school days, English was my favorite subject and I particularly enjoyed the varied selection of stories that would feature in our syllabus. I discovered all the popular short story writers in my text books. And I was most amused by tales with a twist in the tail.
In this way I discovered Maugham, Maupassant, O Henry, Saki and William Saroyan in no particular order. I simply enjoyed reading their stories and no literary critique was needed to egg me on read their works further well beyond the scope of our curriculum.
O Henry had a troubled past and possibly it reflects in his works as well. Often he showcases the pulls and pressures of daily life that get the better of even the most ‘kind-hearted’ souls. But he makes up the balance in stories that salute the human spirit and warm the cockles of our heart.
I went on read a larger collection of his stories and realized that the twists were not as neat in all of them. Having learnt his style, quite often I would be ahead on the curve and spot the twist before it appeared. Possibly kids enjoy this more since they are so easily dazzled by the gimmicky artistry of a professional writer.
Yet as one must acknowledge there are the 3 stories of O Henry that I truly love and they are classics of a lifetime for me. I can re-read them anytime and feel inspired.
The Gift of the Magi
A simple and lucid tale, narrated so well. It is Christmas time and Jim & Della are struggling to find money to buy a nice gift for each other. They independently decide to sacrifice their prized possessions – Della’s long & lustrous hair and Jim’s watch to be able to buy something special for their beloved. Turns out that the gifts can’t be used – Jim buys a special set of combs that Della can use for her hair while Della buys a Platinum fob for Jim’s watch.
And yet it is the best Christmas ever for the couple who discover ‘true love’ and don’t mind that the gifts are not of much practical use for the present. What I like is that the universal theme of the tale that refuses to jade with age. And yes, the twist is neatly done for I didn’t latch on to it initially. Of course I first read the story in my school days.
The Last Leaf
I like it more for the sacrificing spirit and the twist does not quite matter. I saw the story being adapted as a short story for a TV show and it caught my imagination. Imagine a young girl, an art student, suffering from pneumonia who latches onto an irrational belief that she will die when all the leaves fall of an Ivy vine that is visible from her window.
The Ivy vine is down to its last leaf and its a stormy night outside. There is wonderment the next morning when apparently the leaf has survived the night. The girl recovers only to discover that the Ivy leaf was not a real one – it was painted by an ageing artist who liked her and knew the deep-seated nature of her belief. So he spent the night out to paint his master-piece (don’t be a cynical one to ask me how you paint when it pours) and catches pneumonia himself. Unfortunately he dies given his feeble health.
The Cop and the Anthem
This one is for humour, human spirit and the twist in the tale as well. It is a good mix and that makes it a great story. We meet Soapy, a hobo, who wants to get arrested so that he can spend the cold winter comfortably in prison instead of having to fend for himself on the streets.
He spends a day scheming to achieve his plan but miserably fails to achieve his goal. We have comical twists to his schemes. And then he hears the Church Organ play the anthem. It lifts his spirit and he decides to take a grip of his life. Unfortunately it is not meant to be – just his luck that a Cop catches him for loitering and he is sentenced to spend three months in prison.
It best symbolizes the pain of a common man who often finds his spirit put to the severest of tests by the circumstances that beset him. Quite often he simply stands no chance to redeem himself.