By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Furnished Room’ 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 irony, their occasional sentimentality, and by their surprise twist endings. All of these things became something of a signature feature, and ‘The Furnished Room’, which is one of O. Henry’s more melodramatic tales, showcases them all to some extent.
You can read ‘The Furnished Room’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Furnished Room’: plot summary
In New York, a young man rents a furnished room from a woman and enquires about the room’s previous tenants. In particular, he asks the housekeeper a question he has asked of others many times before: whether a young girl, an actress with reddish gold hair and a mole near her left eyebrow, had rented a room from the woman at all. The name of the girl he seeks is Eloise Vashner.
The housekeeper says she can’t recall such a person among her lodgers, and we learn that the young man has been seeking this Eloise for the last five months. He is in love with Eloise, the narrator tells us, and has hunted high and low for her.
We learn more about the furniture within the furnished room, as the young man learns more about the previous occupants who have left their mark upon it. A woman named Marie had used a diamond to inscribe her name across the pier glass or mirror. Someone had thrown a glass or a bottle against one wall.
The room, in short, bears the stamp of its previous tenants who had vented their anger upon the room in some way.
The young man sits in a chair and hears the occupants of the surrounding rooms making noises: shouting, laughing, playing with dice, singing lullabies to a baby. Someone plays a banjo in the room above. He smells the scent of mignonette (a strong perfume) which wafts in through the window with such power it ‘seemed like a living visitant’.
And he believes that Eloise, the woman he loves and whom he seeks, has been in this room, because she had loved to wear the scent of mignonette and so the smell reminds him of her.
Rummaging through the drawers in the dresser, he finds a handkerchief that smells of another scent, heliotrope, as well as some hairpins, buttons, and a woman’s black satin hair-bow. Like a dog chasing some scent, he proceeds to turn the whole room upside down to find some clue that his beloved Eloise had been there, and becomes almost convinced that she is calling to him.
By now he is convinced that Eloise had been in the room, so he goes to find the housekeeper and asks for more details of the previous occupants. But none of them match the description of Eloise, and when he returns to the furnished room, it is ‘dead’ and the ‘essence’ which had given it life has gone.
Despairing, he turns the gas up in the room, seals the windows and doors so the gas cannot escape, and lies on the bed, ready to accept death among the fumes.
In the last part of the story, the housekeeper, whose name is Mrs Purdy, joins another housekeeper, Mrs McCool, and they share some beer and talk. Through their conversation, we learn that they do not tell new tenants if the previous occupant had taken their own life, and that Mrs Purdy didn’t tell the young man in the furnished room that the previous occupant before him had done just that.
Her description of the occupant – a young girl with a mole growing by her left eyebrow – confirms that this tenant was Eloise Vashner, the girl whom the man had been seeking.
‘The Furnished Room’: analysis
The stories of O. Henry are noted for their ironies and their surprise twists at the story’s conclusion. ‘The Furnished Room’ combines both of these elements: the surprise twist is highly ironic, since, unknown to himself, the young man – believing he has failed to locate his missing sweetheart – takes his own life in the very room in which she had taken hers. Without realising it, he has found her, or at least the last place where she lived before her tragic death.
What makes ‘The Furnished Room’ particularly notable among O. Henry’s stories is the way in which he works this melodramatic plot into something more subtle, fusing suggestions of the ghost story with what is, at the plot level, a fairly standard tragic story. A young man goes after the girl he loves, who has gone missing, perhaps having fallen on hard times (drugs, prostitution, poverty, one wonders?).
He moves from furnished room to furnished room in New York, making enquiries in the hope of locating her whereabouts. Believing he has failed in his mission after five months of searching, he gives in, deciding life isn’t worth living without her.
But look at how O. Henry takes us into the sensory world of the young man as he inhabits the furnished room and tries to locate some vestige of Eloise. The scent of mignonette ‘almost seemed a living visitant’ in the room, the word ‘visitant’ suggesting some spectral or shadowy form, insubstantial yet present all the same:
And the man cried aloud, ‘What, dear?’ as if he had been called, and sprang up and faced about. The rich odour clung to him and wrapped him around. He reached out his arms for it, all his senses for the time confused and commingled.
Of course, O. Henry is at heart a realist writer, and he does not go in for the supernatural. We are, of course, meant to analyse this as the young man’s heady excitement at feeling he has caught the ‘scent’ of his poor Eloise – and yet, as we will learn at the end of the story, he has in fact stumbled upon her final abode.
The scent he can smell is the powerful smell of her favourite perfume, the last trace of her that still lingers. Although this is not a ghost story, O. Henry is calling up the notion of a spectral presence in ways which are reminiscent of that genre.
‘The Furnished Room’ is also a story about the lives of quiet desperation lived by many of those ‘four million’ souls who dwell within New York City at the turn of the century:
He who had loved her best had tried to find her. He was sure that since her disappearance from home this great, water-girt city held her somewhere, but it was like a monstrous quicksand, shifting its particles constantly, with no foundation, its upper granules of today buried tomorrow in ooze and slime.
New York, famously, is the city which never sleeps, its constituent parts always changing, its people transient and disposable as they move from furnished room to furnished room. But ‘ooze and slime’ also suggest the darker and more sinister underbelly of the city.
Indeed, such earthy, slimy imagery recurs throughout the story: New York is a city which eats people up without any qualms, and aspiring actresses like Eloise are dispensable and ephemeral.
Regarding the housekeeper, the young man is reminded ‘of an unwholesome, surfeited worm that had eaten its nut to a hollow shell and now sought to fill the vacancy with edible lodgers.’ If New York is the Big Apple, Mrs Purdy is the worm in the apple, corrupting and destroying its beauty and turning into a rank, infested ‘shell’.