Money is the answer – a reflection in O. Henry’s stories
Money is the answer – a reflection in O. Henry’s stories
A life of wealth is immersed in Society. Yet, there are times when the fantasy is perceived as a golden cage. Designer shoes cannot cover for the obsessive-compulsive fixation to be the most admired and envied of all. The persona of success is success itself, but the price is life itself.
Some women dream to marry the largest diamond, even if there is a man attached to it. They will go to extremes to reach what they consider to be, The Fabulous Garden of Eden.
Somehow, this very ambition makes them appear ever more desperate and pitiful.
The exposition of O. Henry’s story While the Auto Waits depicts a girl sitting in a public park, dressed in a gray dress, which was “plain enough to mask its impeccancy of style and fit. A large-meshed veil imprisoned her turban hat and a face that shone through it with a calm and unconscious beauty.”1
A young man observes her, alert and ready for the moment that soon occurs: the girl drops her book. The lad leaps, picks it up in engages her in conversation.
The girl in gray presents herself as a member of one of richest families in town, an aristocrat, who fed up with hedonism and the fact she is so famous, cannot find even one private moment for herself. Only in this park, disguised, can she enjoy these rare moments of silence, like every commoner.
Indeed, the girl’s manner, in full compliance with the elegant design of her clothes, was impeccable: she “looked (the man) over leisurely”, spoke “in a full, deliberate contralto”2, and made sure her words were mysterious and haughty just the right amount. Her appearance radiated from noble tranquility and elevated genealogy. It seemed that the common whereabouts of the park was a sharp contrast to the life of splendor in the ivory tower of the girl’s unlimited wealth.
When she told her suitor about the magnificent events she attended with the sound of the jingle of ice in her champagne glass, he responded with candid curiosity and remarked that he always thought champagne was best served cooled. “The girl gave a musical laugh of genuine amusement”3 and dismissed his perceptions with an explanation, according to which she and her classy friends came up with new, trendy ways to overcome the awful boredom fortune inflicted upon them.
Then comes the time for the girl to leave. The young man wants to accompany her but she firmly refuses: her car is parked outside the park and she does not want anyone to detect the famous family monogram. The boy respects her will but follows her nevertheless, watches her swiftly passing a luxurious car, enters the restaurant in the corner and fill in for the cashier next to the window. After this, the man steps out of the park, enters the luxurious car and said two words to the chauffeur: “Club, Henri.” “4
In this story, the two characters pretend to be someone completely different from who they really are. Therefore, they both miss out on the opportunity that reality sends their way.
“Promptly at the beginning of twilight, came again to that quiet corner of that quiet, small park
the girl in gray […]. She had come there at the same hour on the day previous, and on the day before that; and there was one who knew it.”5
Due to his repeated observation of her, the young man had learned about the girl’s true identity and made an effort to win her heart, even when he knew that she was lying to him. He, who is well aware of the class differences between them, does not to consider it to be an obstacle. He only sees “quite the stunningest girl (he) have seen in a long time?”6
The girl made an effort to radiate an air of respectability and superiority. Her self-esteem is shattered only when her certainty is undermined as she feels that the young man is becoming close to discovering her true identity. Indeed she “confesses” that “sometimes […] I have thought that if I ever should love a man it would be one of lowly station. One who is a worker and not a drone”7, but this statement is yet another means of her deception – the girl wishes to establish the false impression of wealth: “doubtless, the claims of caste and wealth will prove stronger than (hers) inclination.”8
As she maintains her impersonation, the suitor’s multi-layered personality is exposed: he is an enthusiastic, determined young man. He is genuinely interested in the girl and is not afraid to reveal his feeling to her, patiently searching for the way to get to know her and adjusts himself to her illusions: “His cue was now for a waiting part; he could not guess the role be would be expected to play.”9
Even as he attunes himself to the girl’s mood, the young man maintains his own identity. He tries to hint of his origin when he gently (yet optimistically) reveals his name to her (and then becomes “eager and hopeful”10), but he does not declare of his high-class position, even when he detects inaccuracy in the girl’s façade. He settles the matter by saying he had always liked “to read and hear about the ways of wealthy and fashionable folks”11, thus enabling the girl to continue with her pretence).
His effort puts the girl in gray to shame: she is not familiar with the world she pretends to be in. She constantly fails to remember the young man’s name. Furthermore, she does not identify that this is the name that appears on the monogram – the same monogram she “wished” her passionate suitor not to see. This oblivion indicates the girl’s total involvement in her false reality. She wishes for nothing more than to live the lie.
Although the two young people spent less than half an hour in the park, in a casual acquaintanceship, if truth be told, this date was significant, not due to the girl’s endeavors to convince her listener of her lies, but due to her belief in them: running away from reality repressed the opportunity it sent her way.
It is evident that the narrator of this story wished to demonstrate how irresponsible stubbornness – holding on to false fantasies – prevents people from fulfilling their dreams.
It is logical that there is a relation between illusions and disappointments: the greater the disappointment – the more significant the illusion will be to the person. This theory denies the option to condemn the girl in gray for wanting to find a short – term refuge, to forget her distresses and to daydream. The sting is therefore removed from her conduct and reveals instead the sad aspect of her life. There should be no judgmental opinion.
The above is only partially right, because the psychological interpretation it provides lightens the girl’s behavior, making it less harsh. However, the story does not wish to perpetuate the depressing aspects of the girl’s life. This story focuses on one pivotal moment, which could have changed her whole life – but failed to do so.
The girl in gray is not judged for rejecting Mr. Parkenstacker’s courting. She is criticized for the way she did it. That and more: her condescending and unresponsiveness did not necessarily derive from her false portrayal of nobility: the girl in gray decided to act in an arrogant and dismissive manner, gaining her status by lowering the importance of her young suitor. It was her own choice to act in this way, and therefore she should be held accountable for it. The way she vainly presented herself with her alleged superiority is unworthy and reflects her own ideas, as to the manner in which “high class people” dealt with the less wealthy.
In an another story by O. Henry, A Lickpenny Lover, the readers becomes acquainted with Masie, the plain shopgirl, and Irving Cater “painter, millionaire, traveler, poet, automobilist”12. Cater falls madly in love with Masie and almost succeeds in wining her over and convincing her to marry him – until he offers to take her to Paris. Masie, out of her narrow provincial perspective, mistakes his intentions13 and breaks up with him.
Masie is just one girl out of 3,000 shopgirls in the “biggest store” in New York. Therefore she is compelled to listen to the “observations” of her 2,999 working friends! That, and the fact Masie was only eighteen, created a combination of a very young, very pretty14 and skeptical young woman.
Due to her appearance Masie thinks she had learned all there is to learn about the world and men (“especially men who buy gloves”15) and therefore she suspects that Cater is not the millionaire he claims to be.
These stories do not deal with the gap between classes16: Masie and the girl in gray are absorbed in false imagery of how things should be and therefore are unable to evaluate properly the gifts that life sends their way. The girl in gray is enslaved to the perception of “greatness”, desperately wanting to resemble the celebrated and rich, whilst Masie takes great pride in her “absolute” knowledge until she exposes her ignorance when it mattered most.
A bond is formed between two people in a big, lonely city, yet the chance to cement it is missed again and again because one of the pair is captivated by the false illusion of wealth and splendor.
This makes the girl in gray who she is: the girl in gray. She feels trapped within the boundaries of her monotonous world and her only solace is her pretence of wealth. She prefers the “game” and thus misses the opportunity for love. In this she resemblance Lou, the protagonist of The Trimmed Lamp, who pursued the notion of money as the key to happiness17.
O. Henry depicts an unflattering portrait of money versus life. In his stories property is worth a lot, but love is worth more. Only characters who do not allow social commitment to channel their lives, or who withdraw from it in time, are the ones who gain their heaven18.
Those who look beyond the façade of superficiality discover the true value of the world.
Wealth can take its toll.
There are people who can afford it.
On the other hand, there are people who are smart enough to understand that they do not really need it.