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O. Henry's "The Duel"

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Jack, the artist, says, “Hand to hand every newcomer must struggle with the leviathan. You’ve lost, Billy. It shall never conquer me. I hate it as one hates sin or pestilence or—the color work in a ten-cent magazine. I despise its very vastness and power. It has the poorest millionaires, the littlest great men, the haughtiest beggars, the plainest beauties, the lowest skyscrapers, the dolefulest pleasures of any town I ever saw. It has caught you, old man, but I will never run beside its chariot wheels.”

In the short story, “The Duel”, by O. Henry, two characters, Jack and William, travel from the West to New York City to seek opportunity and wealth. After a period of four years, the characters meet up again, and Jack observes how William has undeniably been changed by the city. O. Henry depicts New York as a society filled with evildoing using description from repeated paradoxes, war imagery, and the astuteness of Jack.

In Jack’s discussion with William, Jack utilizes repetition of paradoxes to draw attention to the idea that New York City puts on a misleading appearance. A paradox is a phrase that appears contradictory, but upon closer examination, may contain some teaching. Jack says, “It has the poorest millionaires, the littlest great men, the haughtiest beggars, the plainest beauties, the lowest skyscrapers, the dolefulest pleasures of any town I ever saw.” Jack’s employs the paradox, with the effect of belittling New York City. His argument, in its essence, is that while the people of New York City may appear to possess material wealth, they really have nothing. His words do not appear to be possible. The reason that Jack believes New York City’s millionaires to be the “poorest” of any city, and its great men to be the “littlest”, is because New York City has taken their identity, and given them wealth in exchange. Jack’s argument stresses the importance of identity, and he considers it on an equal or greater scale of importance than wealth and name. In this way, Jack’s use of the paradox accentuates his point that though people of New York City may gain material wealth, they lose something of equal or more important value.

During Jack’s confrontation with William, Jack’s creates war imagery in order to convince the audience of the evils of New York City. Jack says, “Hand to hand every newcomer must struggle with the leviathan. You’ve lost, Billy. It shall never conquer me.” Jack later adds, “It has caught you, old man, but I will never run beside its chariot wheels.” Jack’s description of “hand to hand” struggles with the city, which Jack compares to the leviathan, a sea monster, picture a personal fight, which will either result in one’s victory or one’s submission to the cities social codes. Jack also describes the city’s “chariot wheels”. Against a group of foot soldiers, or infantry, the chariot is a formidable foe that would use speed to run down infantry, while also shooting projectiles to wear down the enemy. Jack’s previous image of a one on one fight with the city, combined with Jack’s new image of the city as a chariot, illustrates an unfair battle, in which the city has an advantage. If one is not to die, then he must join the city, or as Jack puts, “run beside its chariot wheels.” Jack’s war imagery pictures the city as a deadly enemy, which, if one does not side with, will probably be killed. In the big picture, Jack states that if one does not succumb to the city’s social codes and fall into the same behavior and characteristics as others, then he will be exiled.

Jack’s nonconformity illustrates the evilness of the city. Jack is adamant in his resolve to win the battle against the city, as he describes using war imagery. Jack says, “You’ve lost, Billy. It shall never conquer me.” Jack’s stubborn behavior attracts special attention because Jack is the only one in the story who sees the evil of the city. Being the only one in his opinion, Jack may be either crazy or correct. However, because Jack’s belief is founded in reason such as the war imagery which he uses, as well as description using paradoxes, the audience is more inclined to believe his words. Jack’s willfulness illustrates flaws in New York City.

Essentially, O. Henry attempts to convince the reader that because the social codes of New York City are applied to everyone that enters, and that because most change themselves to suit the society, that New York City is an enemy, filled with sin. The city erases identity in exchange for status, which O. Henry argues, leaves its citizens with a net gain equal to or less than nothing. Jack and William’s experiences in New York City illustrate a teaching on nonconformity. Sometimes, one will be preserved by it, and other times, one’s adamant nonconformity will have a negative impact on one’s life.



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