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.
“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.
- Can you explain why each one does what he does? On previous Thanksgiving Days? On this one?
- 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?
- 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?
WATCH: Is the traditional restaurant meal the old gentleman and Stuffy Pete share a fitting celebration of Thanksgiving?
- Who—what—is a “gentleman”? What defines a “gentleman”?
- 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?
- 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?
WATCH: Why does O. Henry call his story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”?
- What do you think of the “traditions” reported in the story? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
- 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?
- 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?
WATCH: What is the role of tradition in the story?
- 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?
- 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”?
- 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?
- Does the story express the spirit of Thanksgiving as George Washington would have us understand it? Why or why not?
- Where is America in this story? Where are gratitude and prayer, or religion and piety? Is this a purely secularized Thanksgiving Day celebration?
- 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?
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