The Cop and The Anthem | Summary and Analysis

Summary of The Cop and The Anthem by O Henry

The Cop and The Anthem | Summary


The story is set in New York City. The main character, Soapy, takes a stroll to a luxurious cafe near Broadway. He is dressed well from waist-up and is very confident in his appearance- he is sure the waiter will take notice of him, for they would only see his top half as he sits at the table. As he walks, Soapy decides on what to order so that it is cost-effective but will keep him full on his journey to his winter island. However, as soon as he enters the cafe, the head waiter sent him out without a word after looking at his tattered trousers.

Soapy continues walking, and when he is on Sixth Avenue, he takes a stone and throws it at the window of a shop, shattering the glass. People come running, headed by the policeman. When the policeman asks Soapy if he knows who did it, Soapy turns himself in. It seems that he is trying to get himself. But the police does not believe that he is responsible, as he is still standing there to chat. In the end, Soapy leaves, free.

He moves on to his next plan. He enters a restaurant that is not very fanciful- it is meant to cater to “moderate purses and large appetites.” He eats several servings of food, before telling the waiter he has no money on him at all and cannot pay. He then tells them that the cop can be called to arrest him. The waiter does not call a cop though- he simply gets the help of two other waiters to toss Soapy out onto the sidewalk. Soapy is despondent- the hope of getting arrested feels incredibly distant.

Soapy’s next idea is to attempt being arrested for disorderly conduct. He stands on the public sidewalk and begins to yell and dance as though he is drunk. This time, the police mistake him for a Yale student celebrating. The police were told that the students were noisy but harmless, and could be left alone. Hence Soapy once again failed to get arrested. The island he wants to go to seems unattainable. In his final attempt to be caught by the police, he stole an umbrella from a distinguished-looking man. Soapy then sneers at the man to call the cop, only to witness a twist- the umbrella is not the man’s. The man had stolen it himself, or had picked it up mistakenly. Either way, it did not belong to him, and he apologizes to Soapy before hurrying away.

Defeated, Soapy walks tiredly towards the corner of a church and sits down to get some rest. He hears the Sabbath Anthem playing in the background. He thinks of the times when his life was brighter, more joyful and full of hope…a time that seems to be long gone. But with these thoughts running through his mind, combined with the inexplicable vibrations of the church, Soapy feels something stirring in his soul- a change of heart. It is a moment of enlightenment for him- he realises the dark path which he is walking out of desperation and the need to survive.

And with that, Soapy makes his decision. He will not let this desperation-fueled evil control him any longer. He will not continue to act this way, so immorally and wildly. He is still young, and still has a chance to pull himself out of this deep pit and become a good man again. He can bring back to life his old dreams and aspirations and work towards them. The sweet melody of the church anthem brought about a change in Soapy’s heart. He pledges that tomorrow, he will go downtown to find work, he will make a name for himself. But lo and behold, just a minute later, in front of him stands a police officer. When asked what he is doing there, Soapy replies “nothing.” He is then arrested by the officer for charges of loitering, and the Magistrate sentences him to three months in prison on the island.


The Cop and The Anthem | Analysis

O’Henry is known for his descriptive writing which paints a vivid picture in the minds of the readers. His ability to balance wit and depth creates thought-provoking stories, often with plot twists or surprise endings. The Cop and the Anthem is no exception- in fact, it captures the very essence of his writing style. The story is written in third person, focusing on a man named Soapy, who is presumably homeless and facing poverty. O’Henry uses imagery, metaphors, dialogue and symbolism to present Soapy’s character development over a short span of events. Despite the seriousness and importance of the underlying topics, the humorous narration of the incidents establishes a contrastingly light-hearted tone. The main themes of this poem are poverty, desperation, homelessness and the change of heart. O’Henry’s strong irony throughout the story adds to the overall suspense and anticipation, making the surprise ending all the more impactful.

The most important point to note is that for the first two paragraphs, there is no strong hint towards Soapy’s poverty. In fact, the scene is set in quite the opposite tone. Lines such as “Up Broadway he turned, and stopped at a luxurious cafe.” and “Soapy had confidence in himself from the lowest button of his vest upward.” suggest that he has a decent amount of financial security. Some curiosity and doubt may arise in lines such as “If only he could reach a table in the restaurant unsuspectedly” but it is overshadowed by his self- confidence. It is only in the third paragraph, when the “tattered trousers” are finally mentioned, we realise that Soapy may not be as well-off as we thought. This is a hint of O’Henry’s knack for twists and turns.

O’Henry has also mastered the art of subtly introducing themes which not only surprise the reader, but make them go back and rethink the previous parts of the story. This occurs when Soapy hurls a stone at the shop’s window, causing it to break, and then tries to turn himself in to the police. Previously, we felt pity for him and assumed that he hoped to eat at the luxurious cafe despite the state of his appearance. Now, however, it comes to our realisation that Soapy is actively trying to get caught by the police. This is a clever plot building technique. The steps were very gradual, and hence unconnectable. Yet when we finally understand Soapy’s intent, the past pieces all come together.

The next question is, of course, why is Soapy trying to get himself arrested? A line from the beginning, which is easily overlooked on first glance, holds an entirely new meaning:

“The total would not be so high as to call forth any extreme of revenge from the cafe management; and yet the meat would leave him filled and happy for the journey to his winter island.”

It is easy to assume that the winter island is simply a vacation spot or a journey destination. Now, as we go back, we realise that it is probably where prisoners are held. Soapy has been planning to get arrested from the beginning, and was hoping to eat well so he wouldn’t feel hungry when he is caught and taken to the island.  We are presented with themes of homelessness and poverty. From his tattered trousers, it is understood that he is not well-off. Hence, we may assume that getting arrested and put in prison is his only chance at shelter. More importantly, we know that he lives in New York, as seen by mentions of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, and by the term “winter island”, we know it is the cold season. Winter in New York can reach extremely low temperatures- Soapy is trying to find a warmer or more stable place to stay for the winter season so he does not freeze or fall ill on the streets during the snow season. And the only place he can find shelter without having to pay money is prison.

This realisation causes a shift in the tone, and in the readers’ perspectives as well. O’Henry crafts his characters very carefully, and it is visible in the fact that though Soapy continues with his misdeeds, one cannot entirely dislike him. Knowing his reasoning, it seems to be a hopeless and unfortunate situation. We know what he is doing is wrong, but we also know why he is doing it. The tone of the story remains light due to the amusing miscommunications and unexpected ironies which continuously occur. We also see a hint of desperation in the way Soapy does not run away after breaking the glass- he absolutely wants to be caught. However, his desperation to get caught is what sets him free- “Men who smash windows do not remain to chat with the police.” This is an interesting misunderstanding, and the first of many incidents which do not play to Soapy’s favour.

Soapy continues to assume different criminal roles. After property damage, he moves on to eating without paying- essentially a form of thievery. This does not help, for he is simply thrown out. Following that, he chooses the role of public commotion and disruption. The irony here is, he does indeed get ‘caught’ by the police- but he is misidentified and left alone. It seems as though there are several obstacles in his path to getting to the island. The final straw is when he tries to steal a man’s umbrella. This is direct thievery, one that would surely fetch jail time. But we see yet another plot twist! When Soapy asks the man to call the police:

 “Oh, is it?” sneered Soapy, adding insult to petty larceny.

“Well, why don’t you call a policeman? I took it. Your umbrella ! Why don’t you call a cop? There stands one on the corner.

He is asking for the man to file a complaint against him for stealing the umbrella. But instead, the man apologizes.

It turns out the umbrella is not the man’s own. “I picked it up this morning in a restaurant. If you recognize it as yours, why I hope you’ll”.- the man does not mention that he thought it was his own, or anything of the sort. Most likely, he stole it himself. This can be seen in the haste of his answer and his fear of police involvement. The man assumed that Soapy was calling the police on him, rather than for him. The umbrella holds a powerful symbolism in terms of class and appearance-based assumptions. Soapy saw the man in the cigar store, where Soapy himself did not fit in with the surroundings. All the items were higher-prices, and spoke of a range of wealth that Soapy could not imagine. The man being in such a store signifies that he is of a societal and financial class of people who can afford such things. Due to his distinguished-looking appearance, he seems like a person with money. And because of this, it did not even cross Soapy’s mind that the man could have stolen the umbrella.

Here, a question arises-  why did the man steal the umbrella? When he has the money to shop at a cigar store, why can he not purchase a new umbrella? We see a strong contrast between the intention behind Soapy’s thievery and the man’s. Soapy does not have money, so steals to get caught and be taken to a shelter- desperation for survival. The man, on the other hand, is perfectly fine financially- he steals out of comfort. It is easier for him to pick up the umbrella at a restaurant, since nobody saw him, compared to going to a store and buying one. The contrast of priorities, intention and reaction highlights the class difference.

Soapy gives up and makes his way to the corner of a church. He is convinced that he will not get caught no matter what he does- and from the ironic and unbelievable turn of events throughout the day, he cannot be blamed. In this section of the short story, we see a huge amount of character development and growth, as Soapy has an incredible realisation. The mood of this section begins in a sort of hopeless despondency masked by the lingering humour of the previous incident. It is then that he starts hearing the Sabbath anthem playing from the church. The sound gradually stirs his soul. The combination of the melody and the full moon remind him of his past, his childhood days. This is when we realise that he has not been in this situation his whole life:

 “for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and immaculate thoughts and collars.”

Soapy too had ambitions and dreams once, but he seems to have lost all hope when his life reached a difficult path.

“The conjunction of Soapy’s receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church brought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul.”– the term ‘receptive state’ means that Soapy’s mind has entered a more alert and understanding space. He has fallen into a trance- or, more accurately, out of the trance he had been in which led him to committing so many crimes. The music clears his mind and it is as though he is seeing clearly for the first time in years. His judgement had been clouded by desperation, which influenced him to do immoral things. Now, as he sees his actions for what they are, without the context of intention or reason, he realises the pit he has fallen into. The melody of the church anthem awakens his soul, and he wishes to be a better person, to “become a man again.”

This is where we see the theme of a change of heart and epiphany. Soapy reaches an enormous epiphany, as he reaches a moment of self-realisation. The church anthem symbolises hope for a fresh start and new beginnings. Soapy is still young and “there is time yet”– he vows to find a job the very next day and mark his place in the world with a good heart. The paragraphs are full of hope, and with Soapy’s thoughts running through his mind, as well as descriptions of the music in the background and how awakened he felt, the readers feel the very same emotion- happiness for Soapy’s new viewpoint, hope for his future, an amount of pride for the decision he has come to. These particular paragraphs are especially fast-paced compared to the previous narrations of incidents. This is because all Soapy’s misdemeanors and their ironic conclusions were a slow and humorous building of the context and the plot. Towards the end, we reach the climax of the character and the story- the fast pace builds anticipation and excitement within the readers, and this is the perfect moment for O’Henry’s plot twist.

Despite being famous for surprise endings, O’Henry manages to catch the reader’s off-guard every time. This is because even if one may guess there will be a twist, it is almost impossible to guess what the twist will be. Here, readers are left stunned when Soapy finally has a change of heart, and is then arrested! What is even more ironic is that he was not arrested for any past crimes, but for loitering on church property. He is sentenced to three months on the island- which should get him through the winter season- just as he decides to become a better person. The irony of the situation makes the readers laugh in disbelieving shock. It ends the story on an impactful note– readers know what Soapy’s fate is, and are left in a state of conflict. The story has ended with loose ends wrapped up, but it is conflicting because Soapy is going to prison just at his moment of epiphany. It also leaves the readers wondering whether he will retain the same hope on his release, or will go back to his old ways. Beneath the humour, there is an underlying message that one’s misdeeds do always catch up to them in some way. Mere moments ago, Soapy would have been thrilled to get arrested. Yet the punishment comes only when he no longer desires it.





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