The Furnished Room by O. Henry is a gripping tale about a young man, his relentless search for his beloved and the cruel end that Fate has reserved for him. Dealing with the themes of suffering, isolation, greed, apathy and suicide, The Furnished Room with its combination of mystery, paranormal elements and O. Henry’s signature twist ending makes for a terrific read.
Set in the lower West Side, New York, this grim tale showcases the dark side of the city and the sense of isolation that pervades seemingly crowded areas. It also explores the pain and sufferings of lost love through the obsession and desperation of the protagonist. A young man who is frantically searching for the girl he loves tries to commit suicide upon failing to find her – ironically, in the very room his girlfriend had killed herself just a week ago. First published serially in1904, “The Furnished Room” was later on included in his 1906 collection ‘The Four Million’.
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The Furnished Room | Summary
The story opens with a detailed description of the neighborhood which forms its setting– the lower West Side. It is described as being home to a vast number of homeless people, who constantly travel from one dwelling to another, carrying all their worldly possessions with them. These people have no permanent address to call their own and this transience is reflected in their hearts and minds. Just like its occupants, the area carries around it an air of restlessness and unpredictability. The narrator reckons that this district, being home to a vast multitude of dwellers, holds within its houses thousands of stories- some that are dull, and some that might send chills down one’s spine.
One such tale is that of a young man, who after having spent almost the entire day roving among the red- bricked houses, finally finds a place to rest as the darkness of the evening sets in. It is the twelfth house he’s visited that day. Upon ringing the doorbell, he is greeted by a greedy-looking housekeeper seeking to acquire as many lodgers as possible. Upon inquiring about the availability of a room, the housekeeper offers to show him a room on the third floor which has been lying vacant for almost a week.
The young man agrees and follows her to the said room, moving through the dingy, dilapidated stairways. The house appears to be quite old and broken down, almost in the stage of falling into pieces, with its worn-out carpet covered with moss and eerie-looking walls. As they reach the room, the housekeeper informs her guest that the room in the theatrical district rarely remains vacant and has been occupied by many elegant theatre personalities who pay the entire rent in advance. She tells him about the famous people that were her lodgers, in an attempt to entice him into renting the same.
Being tired and weary, the man agrees to engage the room, paying in advance for the entire week and takes possession immediately. As the housekeeper is leaving, she is stopped by him. He asks her whether she knows the whereabouts of a young girl named Miss Eloise Vashner. He describes her as being fair, medium-heighted girl with reddish, gold hair and a dark mole near her left eyebrow. She’s engaged in singing on the stage. However, the housekeeper claims to have no remembrance of encountering anyone matching the description. It is revealed that the young man had been tirelessly searching for this girl, who was his beloved, since the past five months, but is still not able to track her down.
Thus dejected and dispirited, he lies down to rest upon a chair, lost in his resignation. The room, appearing to comfort him with pseudo-hospitality at the beginning, gradually begins telling him about its previous tenants, speaking to him through the various aspects of its furnishing. A multicolored rug lies on the otherwise dirty matting. The wallpapered walls are decorated with generic pictures that travelers find in most of the lodgings. Many items of personal use lie around, probably forgotten by those who’ve vacated the room.
As the current resident of the room surveys his surroundings, he begins to discover things about the previous tenants from the traces they’ve left behind in the room. It seems that the occupants had unleashed all their frustrations on the room. Almost all the furniture bore traces of abuse, some being chipped, and others distorted. Even the floor and mantel have sustained the injuries as the people, for whom the room was their home, albeit a temporary one, wrecked it in their agony.
As the young man muses upon these findings, sounds and scents from the other parts of the house drift towards him. Suddenly, he catches a strong, sweet odor of mignonette, the one that Eloise, his beloved, used to wear. He is absolutely sure that it’s her scent and that she has been in the room before. He feels that she’s somewhere near him as her signature scent envelopes him. He begins looking for other signs of her stay in that room. However, his attempts at locating the source of the scent yields no result.
Thus frustrated, the man seeks help of the housekeeper in the hope that she might lead him to the whereabouts of Eloise. He asks the housekeeper the details of the person who occupied the room before him. However, over the entire year, there had been no visitor that held any resemblance to her. Thanking her, he returns to the room, with his hopes dampened and his spirit disheartened. Losing all hope, he tears the sheets into strips, using them to fill the gaps in the door and the windows in order to block the passage of air. Thus confining himself, he turns on the gaslight, puts out the flame, and lies on the bed, attempting to suffocate himself to death.
Meanwhile, the housekeeper is catching up with her friend over a beer later that evening. She informs the latter about finally being able to rent out the third-floor. When her friend asks her whether she had informed the new guest about what had happened in that room, she reveals her that she hasn’t. She remarks that rooms are meant to be furnished for rent. They are the only means of earning for people like her and letting out the news that someone had committed suicide in the same room will hampered her business. It is then revealed that the girl who had killed herself with gas in that room, exactly matched the one whom the young man had been looking for all this time – she was a fair girl with a dark mole near her left eyebrow.
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