Discuss the theme of the story ‘ Hearts and Hands.’
“Hearts and Hands” is a wonderfully ironic story by O. Henry. In the story, a passenger on a train in Denver named Miss Fairchild is seated across from an old acquaintance named Mr. Easton. She notes that Mr. Easton is handcuffed to an older, less attractive man, and the less attractive man asks her to intervene with the marshal, indicating Mr.Easton. Miss Fairchild believes that Mr. Easton is a marshal, a man of the law, and they have a conversation about old times. In the end, strangers on the train note that a marshal would never handcuff a man to his right hand. In other words, Mr. Easton is the prisoner, and the other man, older and heavier, is the marshal.
In many of his stories, O. Henry holds the universal romanticized wish that people are intrinsically good and unselfish. This wish is exploited in the short story “Hearts and Hands.” In fact, the title of this story suggests the theme that people will display “heart,”or kindness, for others with no self-interest. After they are seated across from the pretty young woman, the glum-faced man identifies the younger man handcuffed to him as the marshal. Miss Fairfield, who has recognized this younger one as one of her society, is relieved to know that he is no prisoner.
This glum-faced man asks Miss Fairfield to entreat the marshal to speak on his behalf when they reach Leavenworth prison. But, that it is he who possesses an unexpected kindness becomes known only in O. Henry’s ironic reversal. For, two other passengers remark upon what has occurred in an interchange interchange about the the two men who are handcuffed together. The one, who has overheard the glum-faced man identify the younger man as the marshal, remarks to the other about the kindness of this man:
“That marshal’s a good sort of chap. Some of these Western fellows are all right.”
“Pretty young to hold an office like that, isn’t he?” asks the other man.
The first one exclaims with disbelief,“Young!…didn’t you catch on? Say—did you ever know an officer to handcuff a prisoner to his right hand?”
Ironically, it has been the glum-faced man who is the marshal. But, he has extended kindness and “heart” to his prisoner by pretending to be the convict who is going to prison.
The other theme of the story is that appearances can be deceiving. Miss Fairchild believes that her old friend must be a marshal because she knows him and because he is young and attractive. However, the reality is quite different, as he is a prisoner. O. Henry suggests that people often jump to conclusions that aren’t true.
When they leave, the point of view shifts to two different passengers who had been listening to the conversation between Miss Fairchild, Mr. Easton, and the glum faced man. One of them remarks on how young the marshal is, and the other corrects the mistake. It was actually the glum faced man who was the marshal, and Mr. Easton who was going to prison for seven years for counterfeiting money. The detail was that Mr. Easton’s right hand was cuffed to the marshal’s left hand, when both men were right handed. Clearly, the marshal would choose to cuff his non-dominant hand to the prisoner’s dominant one.
The twist comes at the end when we learn that the unnamed man is, in fact, the true marshal, and that Easton is the one heading to prison. The marshal does not want to humiliate Easton in front of an old friend by showing Miss Fairchild that Easton is the true convict.
A second twist comes at the very end when passengers who overheard the conversation recognize that a marshal would never handcuff a man to his right hand. O’Henry shows us how we often ignore seemingly obvious details when the information is not appealing to us — two complete strangers picked up on Easton’s character much quicker than an old friend