A Summary and Analysis of O. Henry’s ‘One Thousand Dollars’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘One Thousand Dollars’ is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). His stories are characterised by their sentimentality and by their surprise twist endings. Both of these elements became something of a signature feature, and ‘One Thousand Dollars’ contains them both.

The story is about a young man who inherits a thousand dollars from his uncle, and asks various people how he should spend it. The terms of the will state that he must produce an itemisation of how he has spent the money – and this will prove crucial towards the end of the story. You can read ‘One Thousand Dollars’ here before continuing on to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below.

‘One Thousand Dollars’: plot summary

Young Bobby Gillian inherits a thousand dollars from his rich uncle, Old Gillian. The terms of the will stipulate that, when Young Gillian has spent the money, he produces a full itemisation of how he has spent this inheritance.

Gillian goes to see Old Bryson, a member of the same club as him, and asks him for advice on how to spend this amount of money, which is not large enough to be considered a fortune but nevertheless substantial enough to have potential. Several other people his uncle knew stand to get far less – a seal ring and just $10 – and these include Miriam Hayden, a young woman who was the ward of Old Gillian.

After flippantly suggesting Gillian might spend the money on charitable endeavours, something he knows the young man would never do, Old Bryson suggests he buy a diamond pendant for Lotta Lauriere, a young singer Gillian is involved with, and then go and set up a ranch in Idaho. Gillian likes this plan, so he goes to the theatre to ask Lotta if she would like a pendant.

Unfortunately, Lotta tells him that she has seen another woman wearing a necklace which cost more than two thousand dollars, and liked the look of it. Realising Lotta has too expensive tastes for him, Gillian leaves the theatre, asking the cab driver what he would do with a thousand dollars. The driver tells him he’d open a saloon.

The driver drives Gillian along Broadway, and when he gets out, Gillian asks a blind man selling pencils what he would do with such a sum of money. But the blind man shows Gillian a bank deposit book showing that he already owns more than that sum. At a loss as to what to do with the money, Gillian visits the lawyer responsible for looking after his uncle’s estate to double-check that his uncle’s ward, Miriam, has definitely not been left the bulk of the man’s fortune.

The lawyer confirms this, and Gillian goes to pay Miriam a visit. He pretends to her that the lawyers have discovered she was left an extra one thousand dollars in Old Gillian’s will, and provides her with his inheritance. He tells her he loves her but she replies that she is sorry: she cannot return his affections.

Having spent his one-thousand-dollar inheritance, Gillian goes back to the lawyer and tells him he has done so. He has written a note in an envelope which explains how he has given away the money to ‘the best and dearest woman on earth’. The lawyer then reveals that there is a codicil (or appendix) to Old Gillian’s will, which outlined the following: if Young Gillian spent his one thousand dollars unselfishly, he will inherit $50,000 of his uncle’s money in bonds.

If he has frittered away his one thousand dollars (as was his habit in the past), the money will instead go to Miriam.

At this news, Young Gillian tears up the envelope revealing his charitable donation of his one thousand dollars to Miriam, and tells the lawyers he lost his money in betting at the horse-racing. He then leaves, whistling happily to himself.

‘One Thousand Dollars’: analysis

‘One Thousand Dollars’ contains O. Henry’s characteristic twist ending: here, the twist is that we expect the dissolute and selfish Gillian to seize the $50,000 fortune for himself, but instead he actively lies about what he has done to ensure that the woman he loves inherits the money instead. The story, like many of O. Henry’s other short stories, is about the triumph of love over money (see ‘The Gift of the Magi’ and ‘Mammon and the Archer’ for two other examples).

Indeed, O. Henry cleverly wrongfoots us about how Young Robert Gillian is going to behave. He paints him as someone who is careless with money and uncharitable: look at the way Old Bryson offends him by sarcastically suggesting he give the money to help poor mothers provide milk for their children. But his love for Miriam Hayden turns out to be capable of overruling even his love of money and spending.

O. Henry deliberately makes us think he is up to something when he goes and gives away his one thousand dollars to her. He has, after all, just learnt that she is not going to inherit his uncle’s fortune either. So he cannily deduces that there is some codicil, some conditional detail in the will which is dependent on how he spends his one thousand dollars: hence the need for him to produce evidence to account for what he has done with it. But, it turns out, he is not out to gain a fortune but to do something selfless for the woman he loves.

What’s more, he does this not to win her hand (he realises that is a lost cause) nor even in the hope that she will know what he has done. Indeed, instead she will ‘learn’ from the lawyers that she is inheriting a fortune because he failed the test his uncle set up for him. To her, he will remain an extravagant and irresponsible wastrel.

But Gillian’s encounter with the blind man seems to have been a turning point. After rejecting the material suggestions made by others (moving to Idaho and setting up as a rancher, opening a saloon, buying a woman expensive jewellery), Gillian comes to realise, when the blind man shows him his bank deposit book, that a simple and honest life can still bring one enough money to survive and be happy on.

But wait: there’s another twist (there are, in fact, several twists and turns in this very short story). For surely, when Miriam is told she is now set to inherit $50,000 and the lawyers explain it’s because Young Gillian lost his one thousand dollars at the races, she will know this isn’t the truth – because she knows he actually gave it to her.

Will this change things? Does Young Gillian suspect that Miriam does return his affection, after all, and the only reason she rejects his advances is because he’s a gambler and wastrel? Once she realises he is a changed man, will he be able to woo her? And is he really a changed man, or just a very cunning one who has played the game very well?

We might analyse ‘One Thousand Dollars’ as an early example of game theory before game theory became a field of probability in itself. Game theory is a framework involving social situations among competing players, in which the decisions taken by those players will influence the outcome.

For instance, if I were offered $50,000, but there was another player who was also offered $50,000, and only one of us could get the money, what should happen? What if both I and the other player were offered an ultimatum: we would both be asked separately whether we wished to take the whole $50,000 for ourselves, or whether we’d prefer to share the money and take $25,000 each. If we both say we’ll share it, we each get $25,000, and if we both say we want the $50,000 to ourselves, neither of us gets anything.

But if one says they’ll share and the other says they’ll take it all, the one who says they’ll take it all carries off the $50,000 and the would-be sharer goes home empty-handed.

In O. Henry’s ‘One Thousand Dollars’, Gillian is in a similar situation. If he takes the $1,000 and spends it on himself, he gets $1,000 and nothing else. If he gives away the $1,000 – and, indeed, this is what he does – he is deemed worthy of the reward and stands to inherit $50,000. But O. Henry gives us a final twist in which Gillian isn’t prepared to play the game at all: for him, knowing the woman he loves will be happy and rich is enough for him. As he writes in the note in the envelope, she has already given him ‘eternal happiness’.

Another key feature of O. Henry’s story is irony. It is deeply ironic that Gillian’s final act in the story is to tear up a piece of paper worth, effectively, $50,000 to himself. He has ‘wasted’ money yet again – but this time, through selflessness rather than selfish improvidence. He has, in fact, provided for someone else – whom he deems far worthier of the money than himself – and ensured that she will have a life that she could doubtless only have dreamed of otherwise.

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