Literature

A Summary and Analysis of O. Henry’s ‘Mammon and the Archer’

‘Mammon and the Archer’ is a story by O. Henry, first published in 1906. The story is about a wealthy businessman whose son wants to propose to his sweetheart before she leaves the USA for Europe in a couple of days’ time. Although the son believes that money cannot buy you time – the one thing he dearly needs more of if he is to woo his beloved – the events of the story suggest that money can be used to buy someone extra time.

The stories of the US short-story writer O. Henry, real name William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), are characterised by their irony and by their surprise endings, which became something of a signature of a good O. Henry short story. You can read ‘Mammon and the Archer’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.

‘Mammon and the Archer’: plot summary

A retired soap manufacturer named Anthony Rockwall worships ‘Mammon’, i.e., money above everything else. He lives in a mansion on wealthy Fifth Avenue in New York and has a son, Richard. The ‘Archer’ of the story’s title is Cupid, the god of love: a reference to Richard’s seemingly hopeless love for a girl he considers out of his league.

Rockwall tells his son that money can buy him anything in life, but Richard points out that the girl he loves is leaving New York the day after next, and he hasn’t managed to win her hand. She is so in demand that he despairs of asking her to spend even a few minutes with him before she leaves: he doesn’t think such a request would do any good. As Richard points out to his father, money can’t buy even a millionaire more time.

But Richard’s Aunt Ellen – Anthony Rockwall’s sister – is more attuned to matters of the heart than her brother, whom she chastises for putting so much faith in money as the cure of all ills. She gives Richard a gold ring which his mother left to him in her will, with the instruction that Ellen should give it to him when he fell in love with someone.

Buoyed by this gift, Richard orders a cab and heads out into the town to meet his sweetheart, Miss Lantry, before her ship leaves at noon. He picks her up and they head to the theatre. But during the journey, he drops his mother’s ring and has to stop for a minute to retrieve it. During that time, the roads become busy and Richard and Miss Lantry are stranded in the cab.

That evening, Aunt Ellen tells her brother that, during the traffic delay while Richard and his sweetheart were sitting in the cab, he proposed to her and Miss Lantry accepted. Although Anthony doesn’t say anything to indicate this, we discover the next day that he paid a man named Kelly to engineer the traffic hold-up in order to buy his son some time alone with Miss Lantry.

The story ends with Rockwall making a wry comment to his associate, to the effect that Cupid – a ‘kind of a fat boy’ known for ‘shooting arrows’ – was nowhere to be seen when the proposal took place. Mammon (or money), rather than the Archer (or Cupid), is responsible for bringing the two lovebirds together.

‘Mammon and the Archer’: analysis

Although O. Henry’s stories can often lean towards the sentimental, and in other stories he often privileges love over riches, ‘Mammon and the Archer’ uses the trademark twist in the tale – a feature of virtually every O. Henry story – to turn this idea on its head.

This makes ‘Mammon and the Archer’ a curious counterpoint to what is doubtless O. Henry’s most famous story, ‘The Gift of the Magi’, in which a married couple uses their last few dollars to buy each other a Christmas present, only to discover that they have bought each other a gift that turns out to be useless. (The wife has sold her hair to pay for a chain for her husband’s gold watch, while he’s pawned his watch to buy her a comb.) The moral of that story, it seems, is that ‘it’s the thought that counts’, rather than the material gift itself.

But in ‘Mammon and the Archer’, proud denunciation of her brother’s money-centred worldview is undermined by the story’s final twist revelation: contrary to what Richard had told his father, money actually can buy you time.

This could have led to a crass story about the triumph of what Washington Irving termed ‘the almighty dollar’ over love as some abstract but pure and noble idea, but several aspects prevent this from happening. First, the story is clearly meant as a somewhat comical or tongue-in-cheek tale, with its last-minute race to unite two young lovers and the humorous way O. Henry weaves in those soapy references – the commodity which has enabled Anthony Rockwall to make an honest fortune while (literally) keeping his hands clean.

Second, Anthony Rockwall has made an honest living which has enabled him to climb the social ladder and join the ‘old rich’: the name of one of Rockwall’s neighbours on Fifth Avenue, G. Van Schuylight Suffolk-Jones combines the early Dutch settlers of the US with the early English settlers. Those neighbours probably inherited their wealth; Rockwall, by contrast, as his conversation with his son makes clear, is a self-made man.

His neighbours are ‘two old Knickerbocker gents’, a reference to an old term for a native New Yorker derived from Washington Irving’s pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker: a Dutch name, of course. (Incidentally, Irving came up with this name, which in time gave us the New York Knicks, the dessert known as the knickerbocker glory, and even the word ‘knickers’.)

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it is the other characters – notably Richard and, chief of all, his aunt – who pit their ideal of love against money, as though love should always be distanced or even divorced from any pernicious financial influence. Rockwall, by contrast, and despite his doubly hard and toughened surname, sees how money can be used to facilitate the union between his son and Miss Lantry. Although ‘the Archer’ may be conspicuously absent from the site of the proposal, this is because Richard’s and Aunt Ellen’s romantic, idealised view of love will not help the lovers, whereas Rockwall’s money can be used to give them those crucial few minutes together which will enable love to flourish. Cupid won’t bring lovers passively together, but money will provide the means for them to make their own fate.

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