Although O. Henry is known as a popular writer rather than a literary artist, we do find examples of unequalled storytelling in his voluminous work. He wrote mainly for newspapers and his constant modus operadi in his syndicated pieces was surprise endings. Many of us remember the shock of the ending in his “Gift of the Magi,” that frequently anthologized story about the man who sold his precious heirloom watch to buy his wife a comb for her lavishly beautiful hair and his wife who sold her treasured hair to buy him a chain for his watch. I have read that O. Henry searched everywhere for true stories he could embellish for his column and he even asked friends to be on the lookout for material he could use. Of course, many of his tales came directly from his rich imagination.
One of his imaginative stories, “The Furnished Room,” is my favorite in that it contains not only an elaborate surprise ending, but artful characterizations, riveting descriptions and a very keen vocabulary. I mean, he uses words such as “fugacious,” meaning passing quickly, “viscid,” meaning sticky and other words that would send most of his readers to the dictionary. But, as to the surprise ending, it is unsurpassed by any work of American literature to date.
The story goes this way: a young man searches the low-rent district of New York for someone with whom he was in love. O. Henry only gives hints of what went wrong in their relationship, but the young man wants to find her in view of reconciliation.
One furnished room is available in an area the thinks she may living. He rents it from the lady manager, who is a bit evasive, but is also a good salesperson. In the room, the young man begins to feel the mysterious presence of his beloved and smells the unique odor of her favorite perfume. He becomes so despondent that he closes all the windows and turns on the gas.
Then the story turns to a conversation between the lady manager of the rooming house and her friend over drinks in the evening. The friend asks if she has rented the room in which a young lady had recently taken her life. She says yes, just today I rented it to a young fellow who was very eager to find a young woman he described as similar to the one who died there.
It is a morbid story, but one in which the surprise ending works beautifully. There are very few hints leading up to the ironic conclusion that both the estranged lovers found their way to the same location to end their lives. An early literature teacher of mine used to say, “The finest art covers up art,” meaning that an artist’s technique should be subtle and hidden. If what that teacher taught is true, then “The Furnished Room” is as artistic as a story can be. It goes to show you that even prolific newspaper writers can hit just the right note at times.