‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ is a story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). In this 1903 story, the yellow dog of the story’s title recounts his life, his owners, and his love for his master (and his dislike for his master’s wife). Man and dog really do have a stronger bond in this story than man and wife, and ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ is a classic short story about our four-legged friends.
You can read ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below.
‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a yellow dog who lives in New York. He cannot remember any details of his birth but can remember an old lady trying to sell him to a ‘fat lady’ on Broadway. This woman made a fuss of the dog and talked to him in a rather cutesy way, calling him ‘um oodlum, doodlum, woodlum, toodlum, bitsy-witsy skoodlums’ (which means … well, it’s anybody’s guess, really). She calls him Lovey.
The dog tells us that as he grew into a full-grown dog, he resembled an Angora cat crossed with a box of lemons. He lived in the woman’s flat with her and her husband, who is described as ‘hen-pecked’. The husband was made to take the dog out for a walk every evening.
The dog is openly contemptuous of the things the lady does during the daytime, while her husband is out at work, in order to ‘kill time’. He began to feel sorry for her husband, whose appearance, the dog tells us, resembled his own. One evening while out on their daily walk, the dog attempts to commiserate with him, telling him that at least the wife doesn’t try to kiss him the way she kisses the dog, and be subjected to a string of babyish words. The husband almost seems to understand the dog.
The yellow dog also tells us of his conversation with the black-and-tan terrier who lives across the hallway. He asks this other dog how his master manages to look so happy. The black-and-tan dog tells him that his master takes him to saloon bars, where he gets drunk.
This gives the yellow dog an idea. The next evening, while out with his master, he stops outside a saloon and scratches at the door. The hint works, and the husband goes inside and proceeds to get drunk on Scotch whisky. After numerous drinks, the husband appears to ‘get’ what the dog is trying to say, and announces that the two of them will run away, leaving the wife and going to live together in the Rocky Mountains. The husband tells the dog he is going to call him ‘Pete’ from now on – a name which pleases the yellow dog immensely.
‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’: analysis
The stories of O. Henry are characterised by their irony and by their surprise endings, but also for their sentimentality. What makes ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ in some ways atypical in O. Henry’s oeuvre is that it doesn’t fully fit with these typical characteristics of his work.
True, there is a surprise development at the end, with man and dog running off together, but this is not a full-on ‘twist’ as much as it’s a natural progression from what’s gone before. Similarly, the story is far less sentimental than some of O. Henry’s other famous stories, where human compassion and love are often a key element of the ‘message’ of the story.
Instead, ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ is even anti-sentimental, with the colloquial narrative style of its canine narrator cutting across the twee and cloying emotion of the wife in the story. O. Henry is keen, right from the outset of the story, to establish his dog as a quintessentially American creation, a wisecracking, fast-talking creature who speaks plainly, in contrast to the ‘stuck-up’ style of Rudyard Kipling’s animals in The Jungle Book and other works. (One might compare this technique with, say, Holden Caulfield’s rejection of the English mode of narration favoured by Dickens’s characters at the beginning of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.)
And the narrator of ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ is himself anti-sentimental in his outlook, disliking the cute names the overweight wife bestows upon him, and wagging his tail with glee when the reformed husband renames him Pete: a decidedly unsentimental and down-to-earth name, in contrast to the sickly name the wife had given him.
But is the dog, and the story itself, more than just anti-sentimental? Is there a strain of misogyny running through the story which leaves an unpleasant taste? ‘Lovey’ is very critical of his mistress, and sees his role as that of a liberator, freeing an unhappy husband from a loveless marriage in which the dog was presumably intended as a child-substitute (the husband and wife are not young, and no children are mentioned). But through his actions, he leaves the mistress without ‘child’ or husband as the two male characters bond and prepare for their new life.
And although the sections in which the dog satirises the way his mistress whiles away the hours waiting for her husband to return are supposed to be observational comedy of a sort, they arguably offer a window onto a tragic life devoid of meaning, perhaps because the wife is stuck at home without children to look after (and lives at a time when women were discouraged from pursuing a career of their own):
If men knew how women pass the time when they are alone they’d never marry. Laura Lean Jibbey, peanut brittle, a little almond cream on the neck muscles, dishes unwashed, half an hour’s talk with the iceman, reading a package of old letters, a couple of pickles and two bottles of malt extract, one hour peeking through a hole in the window shade into the flat across the air-shaft – that’s about all there is to it. Twenty minutes before time for him to come home from work she straightens up the house, fixes her rat so it won’t show, and gets out a lot of sewing for a ten-minute bluff.
What are the ‘old letters’ the mistress spends her days reading, which are kept in ‘a package’ which she appears regularly to consult? Are they love letters the husband wrote to her when he was wooing and courting her, before the love and passion left their relationship? Or are they perhaps letters she received from other beaus before she married? The dog doesn’t know, of course, and this allows O. Henry to limit the knowledge of his narrator without the withholding of such information appearing odd.
‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’ is, in the last analysis, an entertaining story in which man bonds with dog, but this bonding comes at the cost of both of their ties to the wife, who considers both of them – especially the yellow dog – to be an important part of her life. If there is an irony in this story, as there often is in an O. Henry tale, it is perhaps the fact that the dog is unaware of (or indifferent to) the extent to which his actions will uproot everything the wife has.