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Guide for “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”

Reading: “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” By O. Henry


How To Use This Discussion Guide

Begin by reading O. Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Christopher DeMuth (Hudson Institute) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

About the Author

The life of O. Henry, like his much loved short stories, was filled with twists and surprises. Born William Sydney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862, O. Henry later moved to Texas, where he worked as a ranch hand, bank teller, and journalist. In 1896 he was indicted for and convicted of embezzling funds from an Austin bank, and he spent three years in prison. Prison turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it was there that he started to write short stories using the pseudonym by which he later became famous. Released from prison in 1901, O. Henry moved to New York City, where he lived for the last ten years of his life, continuing to write short stories, many of which, like the one discussed here, were set in New York City. “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen,” like so many of O. Henry’s other stories, is rife with irony, mocking humor, and his signature surprise—or as some have described them, “twisty”—endings. These qualities make it difficult to say with certainty what O. Henry is up to: is he irreverently satirizing the tradition of Thanksgiving, or is he, at the same time, showing us and celebrating its redeeming essence?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text


The plot is fairly straight-forward, at least until O. Henry’s characteristic final twist. After an opening editorial about President Theodore Roosevelt, Thanksgiving proclamations, and the state of “tradition” in America, the story proper begins with Stuffy Pete, a homeless man who occupies a bench in New York’s Union Square. There, as has happened annually for nine years on Thanksgiving Day, he is met by an elderly gentleman, who escorts him to a restaurant and treats him to a lavish dinner which the old gentleman watches Stuffy Pete eat. But this year, while Stuffy is en route to his park bench, he passes the mansion of two old ladies of an ancient family, who have their own tradition of feasting the first hungry wayfarer that comes along after the clock strikes noon. The servants of the elderly sisters take Stuffy Pete in and banquet him to a finish. So he is well stuffed by the time he reaches his bench. When the old gentleman appears as usual, Stuffy Pete doesn’t have the heart to disappoint the kindly old man, whose “eyes were bright with the giving pleasure.” He goes with him to the traditional table at the traditional restaurant—and like a valiant knight—consumes a second huge Thanksgiving Day meal. As soon as the men go their separate ways, Stuffy Pete, now dangerously overstuffed, collapses and is taken by ambulance to the hospital. An hour later, the old gentleman is brought in, and, as the story’s surprise final sentence tells us, he is discovered to be near starvation, not having had anything to eat for three days past.

Section Overview

“Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” is a story that links the spirit of giving and the impulse to charity with the development of tradition and the holiday of Thanksgiving. But the “twisty” ending shows us that good intentions may have bad consequences, and, more specifically, that generous impulses toward our less fortunate fellow citizens do not always yield genuine benefaction. Indeed, the ending seems to support the view— encouraged by the narrator’s ironic and mocking tone throughout—that the entire story is intended to expose the hollowness or foolishness of gentlemanly generosity, American traditions, and the holiday of Thanksgiving in particular. Does a careful consideration of the story support this conclusion? Or does the story, by means of irony, turn the reader against himself and toward more elevated teachings about these important things?

A. The Characters

Describe Stuffy Pete and the “old gentleman” and also what you know about their circumstances and their lives.

  1. Can you explain why each one does what he does? On previous Thanksgiving Days? On this one?
  2. What do you think of their intentions? Their deeds? Their relation to each other? Do you admire the old gentleman? Do you admire Stuffy Pete?
  3. What might we criticize about the relationship between the old gentleman and Stuffy Pete? About the way they shared (or, rather, didn’t share) a meal? About the way they interacted with each other?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Is the traditional restaurant meal the old gentleman and Stuffy Pete share a fitting celebration of Thanksgiving?

B. Gentlemen
  1. Who—what—is a “gentleman”? What defines a “gentleman”?
  2. Why does O. Henry call his story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”? In what ways, if any, might both Stuffy Pete and the old man be regarded as gentlemen?
  3. Why does O. Henry call his story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”? In what ways, if any, does the holiday of Thanksgiving contribute to their gentlemanliness? Has it made them better than they otherwise would be?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: Why does O. Henry call his story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”?

C. Tradition
  1. What do you think of the “traditions” reported in the story? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Should either of the traditions reported—that of the two old ladies’ or that of the old gentleman (and Stuffy Pete)—be attributed to American “git-up and enterprise”? If not, how might you account for them?
  3. Do you think better or worse of the old ladies or the old gentleman (and Stuffy Pete) for establishing and keeping their respective traditions? How much does your answer depend on the end of the story, with the harm suffered by both men?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: What is the role of tradition in the story?

D. Thanksgiving

  1. Is the restaurant meal a fitting celebration of Thanksgiving? Why or why not? What elements are present, and what are lacking? Which are most important?
  2. At the beginning of the story, the narrator asserts that Thanksgiving Day is the one day celebrated by “all . . . Americans who are not self-made” (emphasis added). What is the meaning of “self-made”? What does the narrator mean by suggesting that this is a holiday for the “not self-made”?
  3. Annually, the old gentleman (in the only words we hear him say) greets Stuffy Pete in the same formulaic way: “Good morning. I am glad to perceive that the vicissitudes of another year have spared you to move in health about the beautiful world. For that blessing alone this day of thanksgiving is well proclaimed to each of us. If you will come with me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that should make your physical being accord with the mental” (4). What understanding of Thanksgiving informs the old gentleman’s remarks? Is it, in your opinion, the right understanding of the holiday and its guiding spirit?
  4. Does the story express the spirit of Thanksgiving as George Washington would have us understand it? Why or why not?
  5. Where is America in this story? Where are gratitude and prayer, or religion and piety? Is this a purely secularized Thanksgiving Day celebration?
  6. The story begins with a reference to the then president, Theodore Roosevelt, whose own 1901 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation directed the holiday toward generosity to one’s fellow man: “We can best prove our thankfulness to the Almighty by the way in which we on this earth and at this time each of us does his duty to his fellow man.” Are the citizens in the story confirming or refuting Roosevelt’s view?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

O. Henry’s story, like George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, invites attention to larger issues: the meaning of Thanksgiving, its place in our national calendar, and its role in expressing and shaping our national identity and national character; the best ways of giving and receiving, and the place of philanthropy or charity in our public life; and the importance of tradition, ritual, and religion for American civic life.

A. Thanksgiving and the National Calendar
  1. What is special about Thanksgiving as a national holiday today? Is it a public or a private and familial holiday?
  2. What does or should Thanksgiving mean for people who are without families or who are down and out?
  3. What is the place of Thanksgiving on our national calendar? How does it compare—in substance, tone, and manner of celebration—to the Fourth of July?
  4. How does Thanksgiving express American identity and American character?
  5. What does Thanksgiving contribute to American identity and American character?
  6. What is the meaning of the Thanksgiving feast?
  7. Does our current mode of celebrating Thanksgiving—centered around huge family feasts—fit the deeper meaning of the holiday? What could be added to your own family celebration that might make the day more meaningful?
  8. Can we square the spirit of Thanksgiving and the spirit of “Black Friday,” the fanatical shopping day “celebrated” on the day after Thanksgiving?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What is special about Thanksgiving as a national holiday?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What is the place of Thanksgiving on our national calendar?

B. Giving and Receiving: The Place of Charity and Philanthropy in Public Life
  1. What does it mean to give well? Does one give well if one’s gift does harm? (For example: Does the “old gentleman” give well? Is his giving admirable?)
  2. What does it mean to receive a gift well? Does one receive well if receiving does harm? (For example: Does Stuffy Pete receive his gift well? Is the way in which he received the old gentleman’s gift admirable?)
  3. Is it better to give than to receive?
  4. What is the proper response to a gift: admiration and appreciation of the benevolent act itself? Gratitude for the specific benefit received? A desire or felt duty to reciprocate? Something else?
  5. How should we treat fellow citizens like Stuffy Pete—both on Thanksgiving Day and during the rest of the year? Are good intentions enough? Or are good deeds and, especially, good results the only true measures of philanthropic action?
  6. Which is more important: seeing someone’s problem and trying to solve it, or seeing someone as a person and being present to him or her?
  7. Who and what should define what charity should give: the beneficent impulses and notions of the donor, as experienced by the donor, or the needs and wishes of the recipient, as enunciated by the recipient?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: Does the “old gentleman” give well? Does Stuffy Pete receive his gift well?

C. Tradition, Ritual, and Religion and American Civic Life

  1. How important are traditions and rituals for American civic life? Which traditions and rituals are most important, and why?
  2. How do we keep our rituals and traditions from losing their meaning?
  3. What is the relation between the strength of the American polity and the spirit of religion?
  4. Can the United States of America do without the disposition to gratitude and prayer? Without a connection to something higher than itself?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.


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