Literature

A Summary and Analysis of O. Henry’s ‘The Cop and the Anthem’

‘The Cop and the Anthem’ 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. ‘The Cop and the Anthem’ contains all three of these key elements of an O. Henry story, which focuses on the adventures of a homeless New York man trying to get himself arrested so he can spend the winter in jail, so he can escape the cold of the streets.

You can read ‘The Cop and the Anthem’ here before reading on to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story.

‘The Cop and the Anthem’: plot summary

The story centres on the attempts of a homeless man, identified only by a nickname, ‘Soapy’, to get himself arrested. He begins the story on the park bench in Madison Square in New York where he sleeps rough. When a dead leaf falls into Soapy’s lap (and a single falling leaf can be a loaded symbol in O. Henry’s stories, he realises the first frost of the season is coming, and the weather is going to grow much colder.

Soapy’s annual plan at this point in the year is to get himself arrested and thrown into a jail on ‘the Island’ (i.e., Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, where people were often incarcerated at this time). We are told that he prefers to throw himself upon the mercy of the Law (and get thrown in prison) rather than Philanthropy (because when he relies on the kindness of strangers for somewhere to stay, he is forced to humiliate himself).

The story focuses on his various failed attempts to get arrested by a New York policeman (hence ‘The Cop’ in the story’s title, ‘The Cop and the Anthem’). First, he plans to dine at a café and then announce he can’t pay the bill, but he’s turned away by the head waiter before he can even sit down.

Next, he throws a stone through a shop window and waits for a policeman to arrive, but when one shows up, he fails to believe Soapy is the criminal on the basis that the real criminal would have run away afterwards. So he goes and dines in a restaurant but when he announces he can’t pay for the food he’s eaten, he’s simply thrown out by the waiter, who refuses to call the police.

Soapy’s next attempt involves approaching a woman on the street, with a view to making her uncomfortable and threatened. But the woman he accosts turns out to be a prostitute, and the policeman fails to arrest him. He seems to be ‘doomed to liberty’, in the narrator’s ironic words. Even his attempt to cause a nuisance by pretending to be drunk and disorderly is mistaken for student high-jinks by a policeman, so he remains very much unarrested. Stealing a man’s umbrella also fails, because the man confesses he himself had taken it from someone else that morning, and mistakes Soapy for its rightful owner.

Finally, Soapy comes to an old church and hears an organ playing religious music within (hence ‘the Anthem’ part of the story’s title). He is struck by an epiphany and resolves to turn his life around, starting by going into town the following day to find work. But just as he’s embracing this new ambition, a policeman appears and arrests him for loitering. The next morning, Soapy is sentenced to three months incarcerated ‘on the Island’.

‘The Cop and the Anthem’: analysis

‘The Cop and the Anthem’ is one of O. Henry’s most deliciously ironic stories, and like some of his other lighter tales, possesses something of the quality of a good joke, where the surprise twist ending performs a similar function – and has much the same effect – as a joke’s final punchline. Having devoted all of the story to trying to get himself arrested, Soapy only finally succeeds in doing so when he stops wanting to be arrested, and actually recovers the desire to make something of his life.

‘The Cop and the Anthem’ is a light story, of course, with an echo of the picaresque about it (picaresque fiction being stories that describe the adventures of rogues), but it’s also in some respects a fairly modern story. Although it contains a plot twist right at the end, just before this moment, O. Henry offers us a moment where Soapy experiences a sudden change of character, a revelation or epiphany which transforms his understanding of his place in the world:

The conjunction of Soapy’s receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church wrought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties and base motives that made up his existence.

This moment is not unlike the epiphanic moments of understanding which the characters experience in a Chekhov short story. Had O. Henry, in so many other ways so different from Chekhov, read any of the Russian master’s short fiction? And if so, is he summoning this decidedly modern Chekhovian trope (namely, the substitution of a character-based epiphany for a plot-based twist), only to then subvert it by having Soapy’s epiphany destroyed by the appearance of the policeman?

In this analysis of ‘The Cop and the Anthem’, then, the policeman’s hand on the arm represents a restoration of the supremacy of more traditional plot-based fiction (focused on exteriority and ‘what happens’ as opposed to modernism’s interest in interiority and impressionism), which O. Henry himself embodied, over the newer, more character-focused sketch Chekhov had pioneered.

Or if we don’t wish to read the story in such a metatextual way, we can simply admire the ironic humour of ‘The Cop and the Anthem’ and view it as a tale of ‘Murphy’s law’, where the reformed Soapy is arrested only once he has stopped breaking the law and decided to ‘go straight’.

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