The story line / Plot summary
The story “Hearts and Hands” is set on a train, eastbound B. M. Express, where an elegantly dressed, luxurious pretty young woman Miss Fairchild meets by chance one of his old acquaintances Mr. Easton. Mr. Easton greets her with his left hand as his right hand is handcuffed with the left hand of another glum-faced, heavily built and roughly dressed man seated next to him.
Miss Fairchild is surprised to see that they are handcuffed. Sensing Mr. Easton’s embarrassment, the second man comes to the rescue by explaining that Mr. Easton is a marshal who is taking him to Leavenworth prison as he has got seven years of jail term for counterfeiting.
This gives Miss Fairchild some relief, as she started to think something bad about her old friend. Then, they continue the conversation further. Fairchild comes to know that Mr. Easton has given up his luxurious life in Washington and has taken the job of a marshal in the west. Then the woman says she also loves the west and wants to live there.
At that point the second man demands that he must be taken to the smoker now as he hasn’t had a smoke all day. So, Mr. Easton rises and leaves with that man bidding good-bye to the woman.
Two other passengers in a nearby seat heard the entire conversation. One of them comments that the man (Mr. Easton) holds such a prestigious post of a marshal at a very young age. Then the other man comments that he has never seen an officer to handcuff a prisoner to his right hand.
So, at the very end of the story, we come to know that actually the glum-faced man is the officer and Mr. Easton is the prisoner.
Hearts and Hands – A Commentary
O. Henry is the pen name of the American writer William Sydney Porter. Ready wit, gentle humour, conciseness and surprise endings have been the hallmarks of his short stories. The present story “Hearts and Hands” has not been an exception.
The main themes of the story have been the compassion of a marshal for his convict and the deceptive quality of appearance. Though Mr. Easton is a criminal, the officer rescues him from embarrassment twice in the story, first by telling a lie that he is the convict and Easton is the Marshal, and lying again that he needs a smoke, in order to help Mr. Easton escape from the embarrassing situation. He felt the need to help out a man who is caught on the wrong end of life. This has been an outstanding display of human compassion from the marshal.
Again, the story reminds us the old lesson that appearances can be deceptive. Until the last line of the story, who would have thought that Mr. Easton is not the marshal, but the criminal? This twist in the end not only makes the story interesting and likable, but also delivers the message that things should not always be taken at the face value.
The title of the story “Hearts and Hands” draws a lot of attention. Apart from the rhythmic quality, it can be explained from different perspectives. Though the hands of the two men were handcuffed representing a contrasting relation of a prisoner and an officer, the hearts went alike. The marshal could feel the beats of the heart of his convict. He came forward to save his prisoner from the embarrassing situation by lying to the woman. Although his hands were forced to do the duty of punishing a convict, his heart made him feel pity for Mr. Easton.
Again, Miss Fairchild was passionate about taking to Mr. Easton and probably even wanted to make a relationship with him by saying that she loves the west and wants to live there. Her heart wished to get closer with Mr. Easton, when his handcuffed hands made her feel otherwise. So, from both the angles, the hearts and the hands went against each other. That is why the title is witty enough and apt.