Comparative End Reading of O’ Henry’s “The Cactus” and “The Princess and the Puma”




 O’ Henry, the famous short story writer has not just used his stories as a literary act of communicating his artistic imagination, but also a vehicle to explore the extreme possibilities of such an endeavor. However, his ironic and imposed art makes his stories less attractive in modern era even though this is the skill for which he is ever remembered. The ironic twist comes from the two themes that are trademarks of Porter’s scene: His reversal of the narrative and his reversal of a character’s nature.  O’ Henry’s most famous stories, such as “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Furnished Room,” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” makes simple yet effective use of paradoxical coincidences to artistic exploration and to produce ironic endings.
In his stories, people who are characterized as one thing often are the complete opposite. Also his stories are characterized by extreme unpredictability, transforming the genre into an active, pulsating living presence.”The Cactus” and “The Princess and the Puma” are no exception. The readers are, for the principal part of the story, invited into an assurance of predictable dullness when suddenly their trance is broken and they are awakened to a revelation. In simple terms Porter begins “The Cactus” and “The Princess and the Puma” in one direction and just when the reader thinks they can predict the ending, he sends it in a totally different direction. It sounds as though O’ Henry is playing around in these two stories with the fairytale genre and perhaps subverting it somehow. We can really appreciate the way these stories were crafted. They were extremely unique, for they were basically written as a story teller would say it.   




Cactus, a thorny plant, a conventionally accepted symbol of repulsion and distancing, suffering and wound, becomes a symbol of amorous invitation. This is the imaginative genius of O’ Henry - he transforms the deep-rooted conventions of the readers to ensure that they see the reversal in its entirety. The object of supposed rejection becomes the object of acceptance. O’ Henry uses symbols only to dismantle the assumed connotations so that the readers interpret it in a whole new light.

Through third person limited narrative persona peeping inside the character “The Cactus” opens with a general observation of the disparity between temporal expanse and one’s consciousness of it, subsequently relating it to Trysdale’s present state. This helps him to provide a retrospective account of Trysdale’s amorous encounters his defeat and sense of despair. However, the account itself is not entirely objective as it is focalized through Trysdale. It becomes a revelation for Trysdale as he finds himself responsible for his suffering: “He saw all the garbs of pretence and egoism that he had worn now turn to rags of folly.” At the same time, the author rouses the readers’ curiosity as to why the affair could not work! In fact, while courting, Trysdale's sweetheart asked him if he knew Spanish and he answered yes to impress her, even though he didn't know a word of Spanish. When he asked her to marry him, she sent him a cactus in answer. He took it as a refusal, and she eventually married someone else. Later on he found out that the name of the cactus is in Spanish and means “Come take me.” She had accepted his offer to marry her, and she thought he would get the message clearly if he knew Spanish. He didn't get it.

The lady-love is portrayed with every conventional “feminine grace”- modest, childlike, worshipful and sincere. The descriptions, evocative of the Petrarchan Courtly tradition, are ironically, an inversion of the same tradition. This is because, it is the man who is placed on the pedestal and the woman becomes the adoring worshipper. This could have been a possible reason for the disastrous outcome, for it only enhanced Trysdale’s vanity.

Just when the readers begin to accept Trysdale’s high-handed attitude as the probable cause of disaster, the narrator slips in bits of conversation about Trysdale’s empty boasts of linguistic competence in Spanish. Only one hint is provided, that, possibly this particular case of vanity was the source of Trysdale’s eventual crisis: “He did not feel the prick of the thorn that was to pierce him later.”

The next part of the story allows this metaphor of thorn to develop through a detailed account of the arrival of the cactus, sent without any note bearing only a tag with a strange botanical name. The final revelation comes only at the end when the readers come to know that the botanical name “Ventomarme” was worth a dozen love letters. However, Trysdale’s ignorance kept him from understanding the inviting message “come and take me”. The damage was complete when this ignorance was coupled with conceit.

The final sentence puts the readers into a perplexing situation, despite the apparent humour of it. It becomes difficult to see Trysdale as only a rude chauvinist and one may even feel sympathetic for him. Short stories are not tragedies where mighty heroes fall from height and go through a moral crisis before the final downfall. Short stories provide chunks of real life where mediocre people fall for mediocre follies.

The error of judgment on the part of Trysdale is not difficult to locate. Had he been a little less conceited, he could have confronted his beloved for a clear explanation about her “thorny” message. He chose pride over love and eventually lost both. O’Henry generously scatters symbolic messages throughout the text. Trysdale’s slow opening of gloves becomes symbolic of his conscious rejection of the past. At the same time, the warmth of the gloves may be equated with the warmth of love that Trysdale has to let go of.

Telling about “The Princess and the Puma”, there were many explanations and funny comments throughout, such as “There had to be a king and a queen of course,” which was the first line in the story. He also states some alternate titles for the story in the middle of the first page. He describes things in a very peculiar way as well, for example, when he writes, “It is well to be reasonably watchful when a Mexican lion sings soprano along the arroyos at sundown. The burden of his song may be that young calves and fat lambs are scarce, and that he has a carnivorous desire for your acquaintance.” This is a very interesting, unique, and strange way to describe a hungry lion. The plot is very simple, but comical. The story was written in third-person past-tense and has constant interruptions that significantly enrich the plot. If there had been no interruptions, the story would have been much less interesting, even with the surprise ending. One quote, which exemplifies the humor in this story, is, “'I've always loved 'em,' said he; 'horses, dogs, Mexican lions, cows, alligators-' 'I hate alligators,' instantly demurred Josefa; 'Crawly. muddily things!' 'Did I say alligators?' said Givens, ‘I meant antelopes of course.'’ There is also a bit of foreshadowing. For example, while Givens is being attacked by the lion, the author interrupts the scene, saying “the 'rucus' as Givens called it afterward, was brief and somewhat confused.” This quote implies there indeed is an afterward for Givens.

To understand how the author manipulates the reading experience in both the stories, it becomes useful to identify the correlation of symbols, narrative mode and character representation to lead to the point of reversal when the irony of fate is realized by both characters and readers. He follows every rule of the genre- limited number of characters, unity of place, time and action; single line of plot; potent symbolism and link with real life experience. At the same time, he goes beyond the genre, in portraying a singular universality and almost pathetic defeat of man in the hands of fate. 

An example of these two themes can be found in O’ Henry’s other story “The Princess and The Puma”. Josefa O'Donnell, a princess, is a pistol wearing, roping, riding cowgirl, which is a total reversal of the princess archetype. In reading this story the reader thinks that the hero, Ripley Givens, will save the princess from a mountain lion that is crouched waiting to spring on her at a watering hole. Instead Porter sends the narrative in a whole new direction, where instead she supposedly saves him from the mountain lion and does not marry him at the end of the story. One technique that is typical of Porter is his surprise endings. In “The Princess and The Puma”, Josefa discovered that the mountain lion she shot was in fact a pet of Given’s farm and he was trying to save him, not her. In the end the reader discovered that the mountain lion had in fact been harassing several ranches and may not have been Givens’ pet after all. These themes and techniques are typical of most of all Porter’s short stories.


Refe: Wkipedia, Encarta

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