The Nineteenth Century produced one of the greatest short story writers of all time. Key among these writers was Anton Pavlovich Chekhov and O’Henry whose mastery of the short story has continued to impress many even in the modern society. Although these writers hailed from different places, their stories followed almost the same style of writing.
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On top of using simple and direct titles for their stories, these two writers had a way of changing the tone and expectation of both the readers and the characters while in the middle of their story. Chekhov’s Fat and Thin and O’Henry’s After Twenty Years are classic examples of short stories where the authors have expertly employed the use of the reversal technique. This essay compares and contrasts the use of this technique by the two writers and examines how it affects the ending of the story.
Fat and Thin is a story of two old classmates who unexpectedly meet at a railway station. The two, one thin and the other fat used to be good friends while in high school. The writer tells us that the fat man smelt of sherry and fleur d’orange, which was a type of expensive perfume. On the other hand, the thin man smelt of ham and coffee grounds, which could have been termed as the common food for ordinary citizens.
Upon meeting, the two friends kiss each other demonstrating how they had missed each other. Immediately after this, the thin man begins bragging of the numerous achievements that he has attained in the course of his life. He begins by telling the fat friend that he is still “as handsome as I used to be! Just as great a darling and a dandy!” (Chekhov) He then goes ahead to let his friend know that he married a member of the Lutheran Persuasion, which means he has married well according to the Russian standards of that time.
As if to assert his self-importance, the thin man reminds the fat one how they had nicknamed him Herostratus after the mad man who had burned the Temple of Artemis in 356 B.C. Without any prompting, the thin man lets the reader and the fat man know that he has now been promoted to the 8th grade, which is a big feat according to him.
In his own assessment, he estimates the fat man to have reached the level of a civil councilor, which is a junior position. Upon learning that the fat man is now a privy councilor, the thin man “turns pale and rigid all at once.” This is to show that he had not expected the fat man to go that high. All at once, he looks at the fat man in reverence and even has to reintroduce his family. In a span of a few seconds, everything changes and even the thin man’s wife seems to have grown a “longer chin” in his eyes. (Chekhov)
This technique is used in O’Henry’s story where two old friends are meeting after twenty years of being apart. In the story, the writer tells us that one of the friends, Bob, had gone West for search of a better life while Jimmy opted to remain in New York. As it is, Bob has traveled thousands of miles to ensure that he honors a date that was set twenty years before.
As he waits outside a hardware store, Bob notices a police officer walking down towards him. Without giving him a second glance, he tells the police officer that he is just waiting for an old friend. Unknown to him, the friend that he has been waiting for is the same police officer that he is talking to. Just like the thin man in Chekhov’s story, Bob begins to blab on how he had gone West in search of a better life and how Jimmy could not leave New York since “he thought it was the only place on earth.”
As the conversation between the two goes on, it emerges that the two could not maintain correspondence since the man from the West was busy hustling around and had no time to reply to his friend’s correspondence. When he is asked if he has done well in the West, the waiting man answers in the affirmative and quickly adds, “I hope Jimmy has done half as well. He was a kind of plodder.” (Porter)This is obvious bad mouthing and Jimmy does not take it lightly.
By this time, the police officer has recognized the face of his old friend as that of the man being sought by the authorities and his disregard of their friendship makes him decide to turn him in. Unlike the fat man in Chekhov’s story who is untroubled by the thin man’s bragging, Jimmy does not like his friends egotism and this might be another reason why he decides to get him arrested. (Porter)
In Chekhov’s story, the fat man is willing to take in the thin mans’ bragging but not his sycophancy. The writer tells us that the fat man was sickened by the “reverence, sugariness, and mawkish respectfulness” of the thin man. This makes the fat man to make an early exit to escape the drama.
The same thing happens when Jimmy becomes tired of listening to his friend’s mockery of him. In both stories, there is a change of tone that gives a different direction to the story. This happens when the thin man notices that his friend has been successful more than him and when Bob comes to the realization that the Patrolman he had been talking to earlier was actually his old friend Jimmy. (Porter)
In both stories, it is evident that the affected men were wishing that they had said less when they had the opportunity to speak. In Chekhov’s story, the thin man and his family are overwhelmed upon realizing that the man that they were belittling is actually a very senior man in the civil service. The same thing happens when Bob realizes that he had unknowingly spoken to his old friend. When Bob is handed the letter from his friend, his hand is steady but “trembles a little by the time he has finished.” (Porter)
This clearly shows that the concerned men wished they had kept quiet when they had the opportunity but now it is hard to do so and they have to live with the consequences. In both instances, the realization of the truth ends the story and leaves the audience guessing what the outcome could have been had the situation not have been reversed. (Chekhov)
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In the short stories, Fat and Thin and After Twenty Years, Chekhov and O’Brien use the reversal technique to change the tone of the characters and to give a new direction to their stories.
In both stories, some characters are busy outlining their success stories but they are forced to abruptly cut down their speech upon learning that the other person is more powerful than they are or is in a place of more influence. This makes them wish that they had kept quiet when they had a chance to do so but by this time, they already have said too much to take it back or simply they are not given a chance to do so.
Chekhov, Anton. Fat and Thin, 1883. Web. <http://lukianpovorotov.narod.ru/Folder_Chekhov/fat_and_thin.htm>
Porter, William. After Twenty Years, n.d. Web.