The Guilty Party by O. Henry
In The Guilty Party by O. Henry we have the theme of responsibility, selfishness, betrayal, love, sacrifice and redemption. Set in the late nineteenth century the story is narrated in the third person though Henry does briefly shift to the first person (Lizzie) near the end of the story. It may also be important that Henry on three separate occasions at the beginning of the story physically describes Lizzie’s father (red-haired, unshaven, untidy man). The reason that this may be important is because Henry may be deliberately placing a spotlight or focus on Lizzie’s father. Something that becomes clearer to the reader at the end of the story after Lizzie has died. In many ways by placing the focus on Lizzie’s father Henry is attempting to highlight to the reader the role of responsibility. In essence Henry is appropriating not only responsibility but blame too. With the reader being left in no doubt that Lizzie’s life has turned bad due to her father’s inability to spend time with her when she was a child. If anything it is possible that Henry is suggesting that Lizzie’s father has been a selfish man who has been more attentive to himself rather than on spending time with Lizzie.
It may also be significant that Lizzie’s mother has very little input in the story. Apart from asking her husband to play checkers with Lizzie, instead of allowing Lizzie to play on the streets, Henry doesn’t give Lizzie’s mother a voice. This may be deliberate as it is possible that Henry is suggesting that at the time the story was written men were dominant and women played a lesser role when it came to decision making within a marriage. Rather than Lizzie’s mother insisting on her husband playing with Lizzie. She takes on a submissive role accepting her husband’s decision and allowing Lizzie to play on the street.
Henry also appears to be exploring the theme of betrayal. By having Kid go to the dance with Annie Henry may be suggesting that Kid is betraying Lizzie. As readers we are aware that Lizzie and Kid are engaged to be married but there is no sense of loyalty when it comes to Kid’s commitment to Lizzie. He puts himself first in the relationship which in many ways mirrors Lizzie’s relationship with her father. He too put himself and his feelings first. Just as Lizzie’s father didn’t understand her or want to understand her likewise Kid is more concerned about himself and making Lizzie jealous of Annie. It is as though Kid is attempting to teach Lizzie a lesson. If anything Kid is attempting to control Lizzie. However the reality is very different. Rather than teaching Lizzie a lesson or controlling her Kid’s actions provoke Lizzie instead and cause he to take Kid’s life.
Whether Lizzie is fully aware of what Kid is doing is uncertain as Henry never clearly lets the reader know. However it does seem to be a case that Lizzie is driven by love and an undoubted feeling that she has been wronged by Kid. It is possible that Kid’s actions have triggered memories for Lizzie of her own father’s abandonment of her when she was a child. Just as her father alienated her when she was younger Kid may also be doing the same to Lizzie as an adult. Lizzie may feel as though her past is repeating itself and as such she retaliates against Kid having previously been unable to do so when she was a child. It is as though Lizzie’s life has come full circle and she as an adult is encountering the difficulties she incurred when she was a child. She is again being ostracized by a man with the man on this occasion being Kid rather than her father. There is also a sense that just as Kid has paid the ultimate price for his betrayal so too has Lizzie paid a heavy price for killing Kid. She has sacrificed her own life.
The end of the story is also interesting. Though Special Terrestrial Officer the Reverend Jones considers Lizzie to be guilty (of killing Kid) it is through the court officer that Henry affords Lizzie the opportunity for redemption. Rather than judging Lizzie over killing Kid the court officer is fully aware that Lizzie’s father is the one who is responsible for what has happened. By neglecting Lizzie when she was a child the court officer knows that Lizzie’s life lacked the necessary stability that every child’s life needs. Rather than judging Lizzie for her actions the court officer looks further and realises that the root of the problem is the fact that Lizzie was never afforded the opportunity to live her life as a child should, guided in a proper and appropriate manner by their parents. By focusing on himself Lizzie’s father has forgotten about Lizzie. Something that is clear to the court officer but is lost on the Reverend Jones who has judged Lizzie by her actions rather than what may have triggered her actions in the first place. Lizzie longed to be loved yet the two men she sought love from let her down. Both men only thinking of themselves.