Study Guide

The Cop and the Anthem Analysis

By O. Henry

  • Tone

    Empathetic and Accepting

    When talk about a story's tone we are looking at how the author feels about the characters and subject matter of the story, and even toward his or her audience. We usually have to go outside the story and look for clues in interviews and other places writers talk about their work. O. Henry was a super-private fellow, but he did leave us some juicy clues that say a lot about how he felt about characters like Soapy, and about what he wanted to accomplish with his story.

    We are pretty sure that he felt a lot of empathy for Soapy, and for people in situations like his. Empathy is different than sympathy. With sympathy you feel sorry for somebody. With empathy you can actually relate the person's situation and feel what it might be like to be them. But you already knew that. Anyhow, here are a few of those clues.

    The Four Million

    "The Cop and the Anthem" was first published in 1904 (yep, over a hundred years ago) in a magazine called New York World. It was later published in a collection of other stories set in and around New York City. The collection is called The Four Million and it includes a note from O. Henry at the beginning, explaining the title and telling us a lot about his tone. OK, here's the note:

    Not very long ago some one invented the assertion that there were only "Four Hundred" people in New York City worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census taker—and his larger estimates of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of "the four million." (Source)

    From the 1860s the 1890s a man named Ward McAllister published an annual list of the four hundred wealthiest and most powerful people in New York City, claiming that these were the only people in New York who really mattered. Well, the 1900 census revealed that there were almost four million people in New York City. O. Henry's stories focus on people who would never make McAllister's list.

    Unlike McAllister's list, the census tries to include all people, and doesn't place more or less value on any of those people. O. Henry suggests that he is trying to do this, too—his stories are meant to reach and represents a wide variety of people. O. Henry sees all these different people and their stories as valuable.

    In "What's Up With the Ending?" we ask if you think Soapy's change of heart is temporary or permanent. We ask if you think Soapy will be able to turn his life around when he gets out of prison in the spring. O. Henry's note suggests another question—can we, the readers, accept Soapy for who he is, regardless of whether he changes his life or not? Can we see equal value in the high-society man and the homeless man? Can we see ourselves in Soapy?

    Need a Loan? Call O. Henry

    In O. Henry's New York years, toward the end of his life, he was notoriously short on cash, and frequently had to hit his publisher up for loans. Was he gambling it all away? Spending it on booze and women? Nope. He was giving it to his friends. A friend of O. Henry's said this about him:

    He couldn't bear anyone who seemed to be in want. Why it seems I've seen him give a five dollar-bill to a hungry sandwich-board man. Has-beens appealed just as strongly to his sympathy. Down-at-the-heels actors, writers, and artists could always get a "loan," as he insisted on calling it. (7)

    This gives us a good idea of how O. Henry might have felt about Soapy and others in his situation. Like Soapy, he doesn't really care about having a lot of money; his motivations for wanting to change his life go deeper than money.

    He wants to feel clean inside; he wants to have friends and family; he wants to re-join the people of the world. Like Soapy, O. Henry had been in jail, and had probably experienced homelessness in his wanderings, too. According to what he told his interviewer, he probably also met many people like Soapy in New York City. He says,

    When I first came to New York I spent a great deal of time knocking around the streets. […] at all hours of the day and night along the river fronts, through Hell's Kitchen, down the Bowery, dropping into all manner of places, and talking with any one who would hold converse with me. I have never met any one but what I could learn something from him; he's had some experiences that I have not had; he sees the world from his own viewpoint. If you go at it in the right way the chances are that you can extract something of value from him. (20)

    See there. Right from the horse's mouth, so to speak. These clues are what lead us to think O. Henry's tone is empathetic and accepting of Soapy and Soapy's story. Check out our section on "Writing Style," where we dig even deeper into O. Henry's personal style.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Realism

    "The Cop and the Anthem" is the story of one adventurous night in the life of our main character, Soapy. A story about a guy trying to get arrested would have to be a little bit adventurous, right? Readers in the 2000s might find Soapy's adventures a tad bit tame (dining and ditching, breaking a window, hitting on a woman, stealing an umbrella). Still, the "Writing Style" and "Themes" of the story give these adventures meat and substance.

    The story is set in New York City and presents a realistic look at that famous place back in the early 1900s, over a hundred years ago. The narrator even gives us the names of the streets Soapy walks down in his quest for arrest. This means we could use the book as a map and retrace most of Soapy's steps if we felt like it. We say most because the restaurants Soapy visits, and the street and church where Soapy hears the anthem coming from, aren't named. Why do you think this is?

    We think it might have to do with O. Henry's desire to make his stories feel like they could happen anywhere. Omitting, for example, the details about where to find the church might keep readers from focusing on a particular place in New York City as the site of Soapy's epiphany, or moment of clarity. We talk about this more in "Setting," so feel free to join the conversation going on over there.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This story is full of cops (six in all) but we don't meet the one in the title, the one who finally arrests Soapy, until the end of the story. Same thing with the anthem—we learn what this mysterious-sounding thing is near the ending. We can't really talk about the title without looking at this whole anthem situation, so here's what we've found out about that:

    The Anthem

    And the anthem that the organist played cemented Soapy to the iron fence, for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and immaculate thoughts and collars. (42)

    It's not clear if the organist is also singing the hymn or if Soapy just recognizes the tune of it. What's more important is that this is the first time we've been given information on his past. We know that he is homeless, has been so for several years, and that he's spent the past few winters in the jail on Blackwell's Island. What we don't know is how he got this way. The anthem triggers memories of his life when it was better.

    We learn that Soapy used to have a nice life, one that included church, "immaculate thoughts," and collars, which are what priests and ministers wear. When he remembers this old life, Soapy is finally able to see his current life clearly, and he doesn't like what he sees:

    He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties and base motives that made up his existence. (42)

    This passage suggests that the choices Soapy has made have led to his current life. At the same time, it suggests that it happened by accident, that he "tumbled" into his situation. Maybe it was some combination of the two. Whatever the case, the anthem fills him with the power and the drive to turn his life around. He has no doubts, in this moment anyway, that he can do much better. We are told, 

    Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him. To-morrow he would go into the roaring downtown district and find work. A fur importer had once offered him a place as driver. He would find him to-morrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would— (43)

    The anthem helps Soapy want something more out of his life than what he has now. Has this ever happened to you? Has a piece of music or other art ever changed your life? Was the change lasting? Do you think Soapy's change will be permanent?

    The Cop

    The cop acts to thwart Soapy's newfound plans. Although Soapy has changed on the inside, to the sixth policeman, Soapy is still obviously a homeless man. Soapy isn't pulling anymore shenanigans at this point in the story, so he's probably arrested for "vagrancy"—the crime of not having a place to live and not being able to support himself.

    For Soapy, getting what he used to want presents an obstacle to his new goals and plans. They cop might represent obstacles Soapy will have to overcome to reach his dreams (whatever those dreams are).

    The Cop and the Anthem

    We might look at the cop and the anthem as different parts of Soapy's life, or as two different paths available to him. The anthem represents the life he used to have, and wants to have again. The anthem represents a path where Soapy can live a good life on his own terms. Everybody has their own idea of what a good life is, but it usually doesn't include being in jail. Soapy's goal isn't really to go to jail, but to have a warm place to live for the winter. When he hears the anthem he feels empowered to achieve that goal without sacrificing his freedom.

    The cop represents the life Soapy has now, one where he is either avoiding the police or looking for the police to arrest him, depending on the season. The cop represents a path where Soapy has to be under someone else's authority, where he has to do what others tell him to do.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    This ending is so unfair. Just when Soapy changes his mind about spending his winter in jail, the law closes in on him. This is a classic O. Henry "twist" ending. The easiest way to look at the twist ending is like the punch line to a joke. When it's done well, it will surprise us and maybe make us think about life in a new way. It twists our brains. Twist endings usually have two other features—they are ironic and open to more than one interpretation…


    As we said, twist endings are usually always ironic. Irony is when you jump to the side so your wet dog won't rub on you, but (this is the ironic part) you accidentally trip into the swimming pool instead. In "The Cop and the Anthem" the irony is this: just when Soapy realizes he wants a better life, he's arrested and sentenced to exactly what he wished for in the beginning—a three month stay in jail.

    A Few Interpretations

    So how, you might ask, is this open to more than one interpretation? Well, some readers will think that Soapy will continue on with this cycle—summers on his bench in Madison Square and winters in the prison on Blackwell's Island. They will imagine that Soapy's change of heart isn't permanent. They might say that when the weather is warm and Soapy doesn't have to worry about shelter anymore, he'll forget about his change of plans.

    Other readers might say, no, Soapy's "change" was "wrought […] in his soul" (42) and, therefore, probably, permanent. The word "wrought" is, believe it or not, a past tense form of the word "work." When you "work" on metal by beating or hammering it, it is wrought . This word suggests that although Soapy's change is sudden, it is the result of a lot of work done in the heart. Who is to say that such work couldn't be done in a short moment? If the change is real, Soapy will be able to begin changing his life while in prison, and then pursue his ambitions in three months when he's out.

    Others might argue that Soapy's behavior in the story suggests that he has a mental illness that might prevent him from changing his life, even if he is willing to. They might point out that breaking windows and pretending to sexually harass a woman suggests that Soapy has some serious problems that a little organ music won't cure.

    This is all a little tricky, since we don't know Soapy very well. How we feel about the ending will have a lot to do with how we feel about homelessness, and how we've been feeling about Soapy's actions throughout the story. What do you think—is Soapy's change permanent? Will he still want to change his life in three months? Will he be able to do it? Why do you feel this way?


    Just one more little thing about the ending—it's abrupt. Here are the last two lines of the story:

    "Then come along," said the policeman.

    "Three months on the Island," said the Magistrate in the Police Court the next morning. (47-8)

    It jumps from Soapy's arrest to his sentencing. Readers might at first wonder if there is an error in their copy. This abrupt turnabout right after Soapy's change of heart adds to the irony and, er, twistiness of the ending. It surprises us and catches us off-guard. This might act like a little shock to our brains, waking us up and getting us thinking.

  • Setting

    New York City, Fall, Early 1900s

    Like many of O. Henry's stories, "The Cop and the Anthem" is set in New York City in the late part of the 1800s and first ten years of the 1900s. The story features one night in the life of Soapy, a homeless man trying to get arrested to he can have a warm place to be during the winter.

    In this story, the setting is very realistic. Henry is trying to give us a realistic impression of New York City, one that will ring true to New Yorkers and even to people who have never been.

    Although O. Henry's New York City setting is detailed, it is also minimal. O. Henry doesn't give us a lot of description. A shop window is simply a shop window—we don't know the name of the shop and aren't told what the window displays. Maybe this vagueness is part of Henry's attempt to make the story feel like it could happen anywhere.

    Contrast Between Soapy and Where He Lives

    Soapy lives on a park bench in Madison Square, which is on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway in New York City. Even a hundred years ago, this was a center of money and power, a shopper's paradise. Soapy is surrounded by all the finest things money can buy. He sees wealthy, powerful people eating in fancy restaurants, wearing fancy clothes, and enjoying expensive entertainments.

    Soapy's life seems the reverse of this. He only looks for enough to get by. He doesn't seem to envy or desire money or what it can buy. Perhaps this lack of desire for material things is part of why Soapy became homeless. Maybe he had nothing to motivate him to work, and realized he could survive without doing much at all.

    But, as you know by now, Soapy does become motivated to work. But what motivates him is not money, or even better living conditions. Soapy finds nothing appealing in the lives of New York City's wealthy and fabulous. What actually inspires Soapy is something very different (keep reading).

    A Quiet Street With a Church

    Picture it:

    The moon was above, lustrous and serene; vehicles and pedestrians were few; sparrows twittered sleepily in the eaves—for a little while the scene might have been a country churchyard. (41)

    Aha—this is a big change in our setting, right? It's this contrast between two very different settings, both of which contain very different types of wealth, that makes setting very important in this story. Before this we get the impression that New York City is all parks, shops, restaurants, busy streets, and taxicabs—or carriages, rather…this is the early 1900's after all.

    Here we see another side. New York City and surrounding areas are actually home to many a natural paradise. Other than the fact that the leaves are falling and it's getting cold, this is the first time we've seen Soapy observing nature. Notice also that the writing style becomes a bit more melodic as Soapy's mood changes along with the setting. This tells us that Soapy values nature, natural beauty, and quiet.

    The next passage really brings home the contrast. Check it out: 

    The conjunction of Soapy's receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church wrought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties, and base motives that made up his existence. (42)

    Due to this change of scenery, Soapy is able to gain a new perspective on life. He is able to realize what he really does value—nature, quiet, churches, music, and friends and family. See what a little change of scene can do? Here it reveals Soapy to himself, and reveals Soapy to the readers.

  • Writing Style

    Playful; Melodic; A Little Bit Fancy

    We don't know about you, but we appreciate a short story that's really short. O. Henry is known as one of the masters of this form, especially because of his "twist" endings. (You know where to go for info on that: "What's Up With the Ending?") In his one and only interview, he gives away the secret of his success. Aspiring writers, read on:

    I'll give you the whole secret of short-story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry [an American editor]. If you can't write a story that pleases yourself you'll never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public. (20)

    Hmmm. Very interesting. This might not work for everybody, but it sounds like decent advice. Between 1898 and 1910 (when he died), O. Henry wrote hundred of short stories. But even O. Henry got what he called "dry spells," or writer's block. Ready for more advice?

    When one of these spells comes on, I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can't write a story that's got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You've got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life that's the stimulant for a story writer. (20)

    Aha! Now there's some advice we can use. Go take a walk already. When you come back we'll still be here talking about the specific style of "The Cop and the Anthem."


    Soapy had confidence in himself from the lowest button of his vest upward. He was shaven, and his coat was decent and his neat black […]. If he could reach a table in the restaurant unsuspected success would be his. The portion of him that would show above the table would raise no doubt in the waiter's mind. (8)

    This passage doesn't seem to be making fun of Soapy, or feeling overly sorry for him either. By giving us this comical image of a man who's a gentleman from the waist up and a bum (in the polite sense of the world) from the waist down, O. Henry encourages us to relax and enjoy Soapy's adventures. Imagine if O. Henry had wanted us to feel sorry for Soapy, or to find his story tragic. He might have phrased things very differently.

    Until the part of the story where Soapy has his change of heart, Soapy's night of trying to get thrown in jail is told like an playful adventure, rather than, say, a desperate attempt to find food and shelter. This is probably meant to show us how Soapy himself feels about his situation. Until he realizes he could have something better, he doesn't seem to take his problem of finding food and shelter that seriously.


    O. Henry was also a singer. According to one bio, "as a bachelor, he enjoyed singing with the Hill City Quartet, known for serenading young women on the streets of Austin" (source). This might help account for the melodic, almost song-like arrangement of his words. Here's one example,

    Neatly upon his left ear on the callous pavement two waiters pitched Soapy. He arose, joint by joint […] and beat the dust from his clothes. Arrest seemed but a rosy dream. (43)

    Read this out loud for a moment and see how it rolls off the tongue like lyrics to a song. The words "rosy dream" sound poetic. Of course, O. Henry is maintaining his already playful tone. We can't forget—Soapy's "rosy dream" is a jail cell.

    This melodic quality builds throughout the story, preparing us for the moment Soapy hears the church organist playing the anthem. Things get really melodic for a few moments. This melodic quality helps us feel something of the melody Soapy is hearing:

    There was time; he was comparatively young yet; he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering. Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him. (43)

    We can almost hear Johnny Cash or even Taylor Swift singing these lines while strumming along with their guitars. We notice, though, that the playfulness drops out of the story. This reflects Soapy's changed mood.

    Now Soapy is serious and enthralled. Instead of seeing life as a kind of joke (not that there's anything wrong with that), the anthem makes Soapy sees life as both serious and beautiful, something worth taking a chance on again. This use of melody to help get across Soapy's different moods is pretty smart, don't you think?

    A Little Bit Fancy

    O. Henry was writing his stories in the early 1900s. As you might have noticed, American writers from that period had a tendency to be a little bit fancy with their words. What do we mean by "fancy"? We mean twisty-turny sentences and a fondness for SAT-type words. Let's just take a look at the second paragraph of the story,

    A dead leaf fell in Soapy's lap. That was Jack Frost's card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call. At the corners of four streets he hands his pasteboard to the North Wind, footman of the mansion of All Outdoors, so that the inhabitants thereof may make ready. (2)

    Now O. Henry could have just said, "A dead leaf fell in Soapy's lap. This is winter's warning to the people that they need to get ready for cold days." Readers in the 2000s might even prefer a sentence like that. For example, look at Stephenie Meyer's writing style in her Twilight novels. These novels were and are insanely popular among people of all age groups. We think Meyer's very plain, clear, detailed style are a reason for this. Anybody can read these books and not have to break their heads over a rock to understand what's going on. For example, this sentence:

    It was impossible, being in this house, not to realize that Charlie had never gotten over my mom. (Twilight, 1.70)

    We don't have to think about it—we just know instantly what is meant here. Not so with O. Henry. By contrast, we might have to dig around a little to understand what O. Henry is talking about, especially at the beginning of the story.

    O. Henry didn't gain major popularity until after his death, during World War I, when his stories provided comfort to many people in very difficult times (source). In those days, his stories were very accessible—they were read and easily understood by lots of people. Cultural references, styles of speech and vocabulary, what was popular—O. Henry was able to capture this for the people of the early 1900s.

    Today, only a handful of O. Henry stories are widely read, though his books are still in print. It's possible that the fancy part of his writing style is off-putting to some readers. The big question is, how do you feel about this? Have a look at some other stories from The Four Million to get a wider look at O. Henry's work—only if you feel like it, of course.

  • The Broken Shop Window

    Breaking a shop window is one of the first things Soapy does to get arrested. This could symbolize his feelings about material wealth—not only does he not like it, he wants to destroy it and show he has no regard for it. It could also symbolize the broken nature of his heart during this time in his life.

    After he hears the organists' song (the anthem) coming from the church, we learn that Soapy once had and is now regaining religious aspirations. Religious people are sometimes known for shunning material possessions and only using what is needed. Maybe Soapy's seeming disregard for wealth can be translated into something positive through religion.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Narrator (Limited Omniscient)

    "The Cop and the Anthem" is told in the third person and only follows our main character, Soapy. Although other people's reactions to him show us a little about how they feel about Soapy, we only see these reactions from his point of view. Although this narrator is omniscient (knows everything) where Soapy is concerned, they still only reveal certain details. That's why we say the omniscience (knowing everything) is limited.

    In other words, what we have here is a very reserved narrator, one who gives us clues about Soapy's past, present, and future, but little solid information about Soapy himself. It's possible this is meant to suggest that Soapy is also reserved, as if he would hold back a lot from us if we were to talk to him about his life. Or maybe this narrator is trying to respect Soapy's privacy in an effort to try to preserve his dignity. Yet, he does share Soapy's most intense moment in the story, and even talks about what is going on in Soapy's soul.

    Every detail the narrator reveals—from descriptions of Soapy's clothing to descriptions of New York City—seems authentic and realistic. This helps establish a sense of trust between readers and the narrator and makes it easier for us to believe in what we're being told.

    You might also notice that this story is heavy on narrative and light on dialogue. This might be meant to mirror Soapy's isolated state. He doesn't seem to really interact with others all that much, except out of necessity. He seems to live in his own little world; one that other people barely penetrate. The anthem does manage to penetrate it, though, inspiring Soapy to crave the company of people, like "mothers" and "friends" (41).

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Stage Identification: Soapy realizes winter is coming.
    Explanation/Discussion: We first meet Soapy on his bench in Madison Square in New York City. A dead leaf falls on his shoulder making him realize that winter is coming very soon. Brrrrr…


    Stage Identification: Soapy is homeless and needs to find a warm place for the winter.
    Explanation/Discussion: New York City winters are notoriously harsh. This is a big problem for people like Soapy who live outside. He decides to solve his problem the same way he's solved it for a few years: by getting arrested and sentenced to three months in jail. In jail he can wait out the winter and not have to worry about food or shelter for a while.


    Stage Identification: Soapy can't get arrested.
    Explanation/Discussion: Soapy tries breaking a shop window, dining and dashing, pestering a lady, stealing an umbrella, and acting like a drunken maniac. But none of this works. Soapy seems to have some strange immunity to being arrested tonight.


    Stage Identification: Soapy hears the anthem and is inspired to change his life.
    Explanation/Discussion: Soapy gives up on trying to get arrested, at least for the night, and walks back to his park bench. On the way, Soapy hears organ music (an anthem) coming from a church. The music and the beautiful, quiet scene make Soapy believe that he can live a better life than he is now. He decides to look for work and try to build a life full of the things he really values – friends, family, nature, and church.


    Stage Identification: None.
    Explanation/Discussion: O. Henry doesn't really give us time to feel any suspense after the climax. Things leap abruptly to the denouement and the ending. If there is a suspense stage in this story, it comes in between the complication and the climax. That is, readers might be in suspense wondering over whether or not Soapy will finally get arrested.


    Stage Identification: Soapy is arrested.
    Explanation/Discussion: Just after Soapy decides that he can think of better way to get food and shelter than getting arrested, he gets arrested. Ironically, he is arrested for doing "Nothin'" (46). He is arrested for being transient or vagrant, for being what he's decided he no longer wants to be, a homeless man.


    Stage Identification: Soapy is sentenced to three months in jail.
    Explanation/Discussion: This story's conclusion comes at us so fast we might wonder where the rest of it is. But no, it's really just that one line from the judge sentencing Soapy to jail for the winter. If you want to talk more about this, we have lots to say in "What's Up With the Ending?"

  • Allusions

    Historical References

    • Caesar (5)
    • Brutus (5)


    • Madison Square (throughout)
    • The Mediterranean (4)
    • Vesuvian Bay (4)
    • Blackwell's Island (5)
    • Broadway (7, 10)
    • Fifth Avenue (7)
    • Arcadia (30)

    Pop Culture References

    • Jack Frost (2)
    • Thanksgiving (8)