By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’ 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 ‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’ contains both qualities.
The story tells of a stockbroker who appears to want to replace his secretary, but ends up proposing to her – only to get an answer he wasn’t expecting. You can read ‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’ here if you wish to read the story before continuing to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below. (Estimated reading time for the story: 5 minutes.)
‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’: plot summary
The story concerns a stockbroker, Harvey Maxwell, who is indeed very busy. At the beginning of the story, he briskly enters the office at half-nine in the morning, with his stenographer (a secretary who can write shorthand), Miss Leslie. He immediately throws himself into his work, while his confidential clerk, a man named Pitcher, observes.
The third-person narrator tells us that Miss Leslie is beautiful in an unadorned and even plain way. She wears a black hat which contains the gold-green wing of a macaw bird, but her dress is grey and discreet. But she is decidedly beautiful.
Pitcher observes her from his desk and thinks she looks different today: instead of going straight to her desk, she lingers in the outer office once Maxwell has plunged into his work. When Maxwell asks her why she is loitering outside his office, she simply smiles and says ‘Nothing’ before going to sit at her desk.
Miss Leslie asks Pitcher if Maxwell said anything the day before about hiring a replacement stenographer. Pitcher replies that he did, and he has contacted the agency who are sending potential replacements that morning. She tells him she will continue to do the work until a replacement is found.
The day is a busy one on the stock market, and the office is a hive of activity, with Maxwell working hard. When a lady from the stenographer’s agency shows up to enquire about the position, Maxwell accuses Pitcher of losing his mind by searching for a replacement, and denies any knowledge of having ordered him to look for one. ‘Miss Leslie has given perfect satisfaction’, he tells his clerk.
The busy day continues until lunchtime, when Maxwell pauses in his work, having smelt the lilac scent Miss Leslie is wearing. Maxwell expresses a desire to ask Miss Leslie something which he has clearly been thinking about for a while, so he goes to her desk and promptly proposes marriage to her, apologising for the suddenness of the proposal when he hasn’t had a chance to ‘make love to’ (i.e., woo and court) her beforehand.
Rising from her seat with tears in her eyes, Miss Leslie tells him that they were married the evening before, and he is so wrapped up in his work that he has forgotten this.
‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’: analysis
‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’ is a classic example of a story which needs to be read through twice in order for all of the details in the plot to make full sense. Once we know the twist – that Harvey Maxwell and Miss Leslie (now, really, Mrs Maxwell) – have got married the evening before, much of what happens in the story can be fully understood.
So the difference in Maxwell’s temperament when he turns up at work that morning (surprising the usually expressionless Pitcher) becomes imbued with new significance: the man has a spring in his step because he’s a newlywed.
The fact that Maxwell shows up ‘in company with’ Miss Leslie is also revealing: they have shown up at the office at the same time because they came in together. (It may also be significant that they turn up at half-nine, when Pitcher is already at his desk. Have they allowed themselves a little lie-in that morning, to celebrate their nuptials? It seems unusual for the broker to get to work so late, and later than his clerk.)
And then, of course, there’s the fact that Miss Leslie is clearly taken aback by her new husband’s sudden abandonment of her as he shifts immediately back into work mode. He has suddenly forgotten he is married to her, and she has become his stenographer again. This is why she loiters outside his office before going to take her place at her desk.
Knowing what her husband is like, she asks Pitcher if the absent-minded Maxwell has made plans to replace her. When we first read ‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’, we are tempted to speculate that Maxwell is unhappy with her work and seeks to sack her, so her enquiry to Pitcher comes across as a worried employee trying to ascertain whether her job is under threat.
In reality, of course, she has discussed giving up work in order to prepare for life as a wife (and, perhaps in time, mother): at the time, secretarial work tended to be carried out by young, unmarried women who gave up work upon tying the knot.
There is also the issue of Maxwell’s flurry of activity at work. At first, this is interpreted as a sign of how fully focused on his work his mind is, but when he goes and proposes to Miss Leslie, we realise that something else has been causing his strange behaviour.
The surprise revelation at the end of ‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’, that he has already wooed and married his stenographer, raises interesting questions about what is motivating him. If he loves Miss Leslie, how can he possibly have so quickly forgotten that she is now his wife? And if he’s so devoted to his work at the expense of everything else, how does the stray ‘odour’ of Miss Leslie’s lilac scent so easily throw him off course?
It is tempting to reply to these questions by suggesting that ‘The Romance of a Busy Broker’, as well as being an entertaining short tale with a pleasing happy ending, is also a comment on the relationship between men’s working lives and their love lives.
O. Henry didn’t live long enough to become well-acquainted with Sigmund Freud’s ideas about sublimation (such as the idea that we suppress inconvenient erotic desires and channel them into other things, such as our work or making money), but Freud simply named something which a canny person, such as an author, could have picked up on beforehand. Harvey Maxwell seems to embody this, especially in a more buttoned-up, straight-laced world in which desire so often had to be suppressed in polite society, especially in the workplace.