For Love and Money: The Ambiguity of Agency and Morality in O. Henry's "Mammon and the Archer"
William Sydney Porter, better known by his penname O. Henry, was a prolific author of short stories, and especially so when the brief span of his writing career is considered. The brevity of this career and the impetus for its undertaking allow for highly informative readings of O. Henry's short stories, though they do not necessarily make these stories any more conclusive in their statements on morality. "Mammon and the Archer" is a quintessential O. Henry short story in several regards: it deals with love and money as themes, it ends happily though with a surprising and somewhat ambiguous twist, and it contains comments on morality without making any real moral judgments. With an adult life that included a constant search for jobs and a stint in prison as well as two long and lasting loves, O. Henry's ambiguity can be easily understood, and can also be seen in other of the author's works. Through a brief biographical sketch, a comparison with another O. Henry text, and an examination of symbols within the work itself, it becomes clear that a dual agency of love and money conspires to create happiness in "Mammon and the Archer."
O. Henry: From a Life Lived to Literary Lines
O. Henry was officially born in 1902, the first time William Sydney Porter published a story under the pseudonym he would quickly make famous, but Porter himself was born in 1862 to a fairly average middle-class family, and he went on to lead a rather scrabbling middle-class life himself for some time (Bloom, 11). His working career began as an apprentice in his uncle's pharmacy in 1880, and over the next decade Porter became a pharmacist in his own right, a ranch hand, a cartoonist, a minor bureaucrat in the Texas Land Office, a bank worker, and a magazine publisher. This last occupation led to charges of embezzlement, which also caused Porter to lose his bank job and any other hope of decent office employment, and it is unclear how he supported himself, his wife, and his daughter between 1891 and his arrest in 1896. After a brief flee to Honduras, Porter returned to the side of his dying wife and to the reaches of the law, and after a trial Porter was sentenced to five years in prison. It was only after his arrest and during his initial detention that Porter first published, and only while actually serving his prison sentence that he became wildly popular (Bloom, 11-12).
This life and the timing of Porter's publication and the beginning of what would become O. Henry's literary career provide very telling clues as to why money and love have such centrality in O / Henry's short stories. Money and love drove every major decision Porter made up and through his success in publication, and also served as the motivations for much of his daily life, it would seem. His constant search for work, the unethical lengths to which he was willing to go for money, his marriage that drew him out of his run from the law, and the fact that he would go on (after O. Henry has made his mark) to marry his childhood sweetheart all speak to the dual though not conflicting agents of love and money directing Porter's actions, leaving little wonder as to why the stories he began producing also often centered on these elements. In "Mammon and the Archer," the competition -- not conflict, but more a good nature vying towards the same end -- between love and money is made quite explicit: Anthony Rockwell believes money can buy his son Richard anything, including a chance at love, while Richard and his Aunt Ellen are convinced that love is a force above and outside of money's scope, and each states their case in no uncertain terms. Both of these forces were important in Porter's life, and both are important in O. Henry's story.
Both are also important in one of O. Henry's most famous stories, "The Gift of the Magi." In this tale, where a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain and he sells his watch to buy her some fancy combs, love is ultimately shown to supersede money and material possessions, as most readers and critics note (Eggert, 2-3). There is still an ambiguity in this story, however, as it is through their material possessions that these two characters attempt to express their love, and the mutuality of their financial positions is what unites them in the story -- both had to have and to sacrifice material wealth in exchange for a gift of material wealth in order to realize the extent of their love. While this story can be and often is read as a simple moralistic tale about the nature of love it is in reality a fairly complex commentary on the intertwining of love and money in the middle-class America of William Sydney Porter/O. Henry's experience. While love might not require money, for a large group of people love and money are very much tied together both emotionally and practically, and this is most definitely the case for the couple in "The Gift of the Magi" just as it was for O. Henry in his own life, and as it is in the plot of "Mammon and the Archer."
The action of "Mammon and the Archer" is quite minimal -- boy (Richard Rockwell) loves girl, boy isn't sure how to get girl, boy gets girl. Bringing about these developments requires the workings of both love and money, however, and while it is tempting and possible to read the story as a sentimental comment in the same vein as common readings of "The Gift of the Magi" or conversely as a humorously cynical commentary on the power of love, in reality the story is one more lesson on how intertwined these elements are in the modern mercantile world. That Richard Rockwell is in love with Miss Lantry, and it can be assumed (though it is certainly not made entirely clear) that she returns his affection, and there can be nothing but joy on the part of the reader on learning of their engagement towards the story's end. The story goes on, though, detailing a rather distasteful discussion of sums between Richard's father, Arthur Rockwell, and the man he hired to orchestrate a traffic jam to enable Richard to woo and propose to Miss Lantry while trapped in a carriage. After agreeing to an increased sum to bring the project about, the elder Rockwell asks his lackey if he saw "a fat boy without any clothes on shooting arrows around with a bow" anywhere on the scene, a clear reference to Cupid -- the Archer of the title, chuckling at the confirmation of his (and thus Love's) apparent absence from the scene (O. Henry).
Love is of course not truly absent but is rather the motivator for all of the action taken, but it must be acknowledged that love could not bring about its own opportunity in this story; the intervention of Arthur Rockwell and his money was required to make love successful. It is also an unspoken truth of the story that if Miss Lantry and Richard Rockwell had not been of the same economic class there is no way a meeting let alone an engagement could have been occurred, and that as Arthur states money purchases access everywhere. While money might not have caused Richard to fall in love with Miss Lantry, money did place Richard in her proximity where he might fall in love with her, and where she might fall in love with him, and thus in a larger sense…