Literature

A Summary and Analysis of O. Henry’s ‘Hearts and Hands’

‘Hearts and Hands’ 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 and by their surprise twist endings. Both of these elements became something of a signature feature, and ‘Hearts and Hands’ exploits both within its very brief narrative, which focuses on a train journey in which a pretty young woman makes the acquaintance of a former suitor who is handcuffed to another man.

You can read ‘Hearts and Hands’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story.

‘Hearts and Hands’: plot summary

A train travelling through the United States stops at Denver to pick up more passengers. These include two young men, one of whom is handsome and ‘frank’ in appearance, the other roughly dressed and glum-looking. These two men are handcuffed to each other, and they take the only vacant seat in the coach, which is opposite a pretty young woman who is dressed elegantly.

The pretty young woman notices the two new passengers and smiles, outstretching a gloved hand to the handsome young man. She recognises him as Mr Easton, an ‘old friend’ who, we learn shortly after, was romantically interested in the woman, whose name is Miss Fairchild. The roughly dressed bigger man implies that Mr Easton is the marshal rather than the prisoner, and Mr Easton informs Miss Fairchild that has left Washington D. C. to travel out west to take up a job as a marshal.

This explains why he is chained to the glum-looking man, whom we surmise is a prisoner he is transporting. He mentions ‘seven years for counterfeiting’ being the sentence. Mr Easton believed that Miss Fairchild preferred an ambassador to him, but Miss Fairchild implies that she always preferred his attention to the ambassador’s, in any case.

Indeed, Miss Fairchild expresses a fascination for the West, loving the idea of ‘dashing Western heroes’ who ‘ride and shoot and go into all kinds of dangers’. Such a life is very different from life in the nation’s capital. It’s clear she misses Easton. However, he makes it clear that he fears his ‘butterfly days’ among the Washington set are over.

The glum-looking man requests a cigarette and a drink and asks to be taken into the smoking carriage of the train. Mr Easton agrees to this request, and the two of them bid their farewells. Miss Fairchild expresses once more her wish that Mr Easton could be travelling back East with her, but he says that he ‘must go to Leavenworth’ (the prison).

It is only right at the end of the story that we learn the truth, in a characteristic twist ending to O. Henry’s tale. Two other passengers who have noticed the handcuffed men and overheard the conversation discuss what they have heard. One claims that Mr Easton looks too young to be holding the office of marshal. The other passenger points out that Mr Easton had the other man handcuffed to his right hand (marshals usually keep their right hand free and cuff their prisoner to their left hand), meaning that Mr Easton was the prisoner, not the other man.

‘Hearts and Hands’: analysis

Many critics have commented that O. Henry’s twist endings are often so obvious, even from the story’s outset, that they fail to surprise or shock us when we get to the big reveal at the end of the story. However, ‘Hearts and Hands’ provides a good example of how, even when the twist is clear from a mile off (the seasoned reader of O. Henry will probably have an idea as soon as the two handcuffed men are introduced), its function lies in more than its air of narrative surprise. O. Henry is clearly playing with our assumptions about what a criminal looks like, and he cleverly uses symbolic detail to build up his simple plot so it carries deeper meaning.

So it is obviously deeply significant, and appropriate, that Mr Easton (whose very name signals his ‘eastern’ origins: he is no dashing Wild West marshal, despite what Miss Fairchild may believe) should be sentence to seven years for counterfeiting. He is, himself, a counterfeit, posing as a marshal so as to save face when he is unexpectedly recognised by his fellow passenger.

So the handsome and ‘frank’ man turns out to be good at deceiving people (who’d have guessed?), while his glum-looking companion is the lawman, who charitably proposes such a fiction because he good-naturedly wishes to spare the man any embarrassment:

He slightly raised his right hand, bound at the wrist by the shining ‘bracelet’ to the left one of his companion. The glad look in the girl’s eyes slowly changed to a bewildered horror. The glow faded from her cheeks. Her lips parted in a vague, relaxing distress. Easton, with a little laugh, as if amused, was about to speak again when the other forestalled him. The glum-faced man had been watching the girl’s countenance with veiled glances from his keen, shrewd eyes.

This is one of the cleverest details in ‘Hearts and Hands’: a lesser writer might have had Easton himself, the master charmer and counterfeiter, come up with such a charade to save his reputation, but instead, it is the marshal himself who rescues Easton from ignominy in the eyes of his former sweetheart. Indeed, Easton’s ‘little laugh’ is obviously a nervous laugh, implying he isn’t quite sure how he can confess his fall from grace to the girl he admired.

Of course, the marshal is also gallantly sparing the woman her blushes, too, because he has seen the ‘distress’ on her face at seeing her former beau handcuffed to another man. Her initial assumption is telling: why does she immediately assume that Easton is the convicted man? Was there always something suspicious about him? Clearly he was always burning through money when living among fashionable Washington society (‘I had to do something’, he tells her when the ruse has got underway; ‘Money has a way of taking wings unto itself, and you know how it takes money to keep step with our crowd in Washington’).

‘You’ll excuse me for speaking, miss, but, I see you’re acquainted with the marshal here. If you’ll ask him to speak a word for me when we get to the pen he’ll do it, and it’ll make things easier for me there. He’s taking me to Leavenworth prison. It’s seven years for counterfeiting.’

Note that although he strongly suggests that Easton, and not himself, is the marshal (hence her being acquainted with him) ‘the marshal here’ could also apply to himself as well as Easton. Perhaps because one wouldn’t expect an actual man of the law to lie and pretend to be a convicted criminal, his story (even if it is heavily insinuated rather than explicit lying) is readily believed by Miss Fairchild, and he has spared her further embarrassment at reaching out to a man whose reputation is destroyed. After all, there’s no chance of Mr Easton wooing Miss Fairchild now, but he may as well be permitted his little lie to a woman he will doubtless never see again.

But the fact that Miss Fairchild initially got things right (as her ‘distress’ would suggest) implies that there is something unspoken about the appearance of the two men (something in their dress, perhaps, which O. Henry omits?) which strongly suggests that Easton is indeed the convict, not the marshal.

Of course, one might object that there is an obvious flaw in the twist ending to ‘Hearts and Hands’, in that Mr Easton might be left-handed rather than right-handed: in this case, it would make sense for him to cuff his prisoner to the right hand and keep his good hand free in case the convicted man tried to escape. The fellow passenger’s deduction that he must be the criminal and not the lawman is itself an assumption, and although the deduction (coupled with Easton’s relative youth) is probably correct, O. Henry does leave the matter open to doubt. After all, both men are described as ‘young’ at the story’s outset, but one of them has to be old enough to be the marshal.

Nevertheless, ‘Hearts and Hands’ is a story which cannily (if slightly predictably) plays on our own assumptions as readers: if most people were presented with two men, the ‘ruffled’, ‘heavily built’, and ‘roughly dressed’ one would be more likely to be identified as the criminal, yet in this case, O. Henry suggests, that assumption would be wrong. Crimes come in all shapes and sizes, and white-collar crime of the sort that Easton appears to have dirtied his fingers with is common enough.

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