One Dollar’s Worth by O. Henry
In One Dollar’s Worth by O. Henry we have the theme of revenge, honesty, sacrifice, pity, love, change, compassion, gratitude and justice. Taken from his Selected Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Henry may be exploring the theme of revenge. Mexico Sam’s letter to Judge Derwent suggests that Sam is not prepared to forget that he was sentenced to prison by Judge Derwent. Nor is Mexico Sam prepared to forget that Littlefield was the prosecuting district attorney. It may also be important that both Judge Derwent and Littlefield show no concerns when they read the letter as this suggests that not only are they comfortable with their prosecution of Mexico Sam and the fact that he was guilty but they also appear to be used to the fact that people they have either sentenced or prosecuted often seek revenge. There is a calmness within both men that may surprise some readers and it is this calmness that suggests that both Judge Derwent and Littlefield are comfortable about upholding the law. Mexico Sam’s letter is part and parcel of life for Judge Derwent and Littlefield. Which may be important as the lack of fear shown by both men suggests that both are again comfortable about upholding the law.
Henry also appears to be exploring the theme of honesty through Joya’s character. Though there is no need for her to come to the courthouse and tell Littlefield that she is responsible for the counterfeit dollar she still takes the risk even though it may cost Joya her freedom. This may be significant as it suggests not only is it possible that Joya is being honest with Littlefield but she may also be very much in love with Rafael. So in love with him that she is prepared to sacrifice her freedom in order to ensure Rafael’s release from prison. It might also be important that Kilpatrick tells Littlefield ‘never trust a woman that’s in love.’ Not only is this remark a generalization about all women but it also offends Nancy who is very much in love with Littlefield. Kilpatrick appears to be blinded by his own arrogance. Which may be something that Henry is deliberately doing. He may be attempting to highlight to the reader that at times the law can be blind. Which appears to be the case when it comes to Joya’s testimony to Littlefield. Littlefield is adamant that Rafael is guilty.
It is also interesting that when Joya tells her story to Littlefield the only one who can identify with her is Nancy. She can feel Joya’s pain and asks Littlefield ‘doesn’t the law know the feeling of pity?’ This identification between two women in love is completely at odds with how Littlefield and Kilpatrick think. Both of them believe in following the law as strictly as possible. To them love is not a valid enough reason to commit a crime. They do not appear to see the possibilities that Nancy sees. For Nancy Rafael’s actions are the result of a man desperate to help the woman he loves. For Littlefield and Kilpatrick it is a cut and dried case with Rafael’s guilt being self-evident. For them love plays no role in justice. Both are men who deal in facts rather than emotions and as such are confident of Rafael’s guilt despite what Joya has said. Though some critics might suggest that Littlefield is being heartless it is important to remember that it is his role to prosecute people. He looks on a case from one side. A side that is advantageous to assuring prosecution.
The end of the story is also interesting as Henry appears to be exploring the theme of change, justice and gratitude. It is only after using the counterfeit dollar to shoot Mexico Sam that Littlefield changes. Though he no longer has the evidence to convict Rafael, he also no longer has the heart to convict him. Littlefield knows that the counterfeit dollar has saved both his and Nancy’s life and the reader suspects that Littlefield also begins to understand just how deeply in love Joya is with Rafael. If anything there is a sense of justice for Rafael at the end of the story. Littlefield’s change of heart and his gratitude to Joya is something that surprises the reader. As throughout the story Littlefield has lived his life (as a district attorney) following the letter of the law. Now he finds himself open to compassion just as Nancy had been. The fact that Littlefield also asks Kilpatrick to find out where Joya lives may also be significant as it suggests again that Littlefield and Nancy are both grateful to Joya and wish to thank her. It is as though Joya’s testimony to Littlefield has opened Littlefield’s eyes. For the first time in the story Littlefield can see the reasoning behind Joya and Rafael’s actions.