Friday, March 02, 2012

A Harlem Tragedy by O. Henry

Most people know of the writer O. Henry through his short story The Gift of the Magi. But he wrote lots of short stories, and most of them will never catch on in the popular imagination - or at least dear baby Jesus I certainly hope not. Not in the case of his A Harlem Tragedy, which is the delightful tale of a woman, Mrs. Cassidy, who is frequently beaten by her husband:
Mrs. Cassidy laughed the contented laugh of the guarded and happy
matron. With the air of Cornelia exhibiting her jewels, she drew
down the collar of her kimono and revealed another treasured bruise,
maroon-colored, edged with olive and orange--a bruise now nearly
well, but still to memory dear.

Mrs. Fink capitulated. The formal light in her eye softened to

envious admiration. She and Mrs. Cassidy had been chums in the
downtown paper-box factory before they had married, one year before.
Now she and her man occupied the flat above Mame and her man.
Therefore she could not put on airs with Mame.

"Don't it hurt when he soaks you?" asked Mrs. Fink, curiously.

"Hurt!"--Mrs. Cassidy gave a soprano scream of delight. "Well,

say--did you ever have a brick house fall on you?--well, that's just
the way it feels--just like when they're digging you out of the
ruins. Jack's got a left that spells two matinees and a new pair of
Oxfords--and his right!--well, it takes a trip to Coney and six
pairs of openwork, silk lisle threads to make that good."

"But what does he beat you for?" inquired Mrs. Fink, with wide-open


"Silly!" said Mrs. Cassidy, indulgently. "Why, because he's full.

It's generally on Saturday nights."

"But what cause do you give him?" persisted the seeker after


"Why, didn't I marry him? Jack comes in tanked up; and I'm here,

ain't I? Who else has he got a right to beat? I'd just like to catch
him once beating anybody else! Sometimes it's because supper ain't
ready; and sometimes it's because it is. Jack ain't particular about
causes. He just lushes till he remembers he's married, and then
he makes for home and does me up. Saturday nights I just move the
furniture with sharp corners out of the way, so I won't cut my
head when he gets his work in. He's got a left swing that jars you!
Sometimes I take the count in the first round; but when I feel like
having a good time during the week or want some new rags I come up
again for more punishment. That's what I done last night. Jack knows
I've been wanting a black silk waist for a month, and I didn't think
just one black eye would bring it. Tell you what, Mag, I'll bet you
the ice cream he brings it to-night."
It's one of the more grotesque things I've ever read. Mrs. Cassidy accepts the beatings because her husband buys her things after the beatings. Mrs. Fink becomes jealous because her husband doesn't beat her. So Mrs. Fink tries to provoke a round of domestic violence and instead her husband ends up doing her chores for her. And that is why the story is called A Harlem Tragedy. This particular O. Henry ending is intended, I gather from the tone of the piece, to inspire gales of laughter from you, dear reader.

Hardy har har.