Study Guide

The Cop and the Anthem Themes

By O. Henry

  • Freedom and Confinement

    O. Henry turns this theme upside-down and shakes it in this story. "The Cop and the Anthem" is about a free man, Soapy, trying to get thrown in jail. Over the course of the story, Soapy begins to discover that he is a prisoner of his own mind and that he can choose a better life. By better, we mean a life where he has more freedom and control. When Soapy has a change of heart, he sees work as a way to achieve this freedom and control. Sure, he'll have to answer to a boss, but it will be worth it to have more freedom and feel good about himself.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How will Soapy feel about being in jail now that he no longer wants to be in jail?
    2. How might Soapy define freedom when we first meet him? How might this definition change during the story? How do you define freedom?
    3. Do you think there are people today who try to get arrested so they have food and shelter? How would you find out if this were true or just a stereotype?
    4. Why does Soapy feel that jail gives him more freedom than, say, a homeless shelter? Do you agree with him? Would Soapy feel the same way if he lived in the 2000s?

    Chew on This

    "The Cop and the Anthem" argues that freedom is a state of mind.

    This story is not relevant to today's readers because prison has changed a lot since the early 1900s; tracing the history of the prison system in the US will help demonstrate that Soapy's views on prison would not make sense in the 2000s.

  • Rules and Order

    "The Cop and the Anthem" is set in New York City in the early 1900s. The city is shown as a fairly orderly place. By contrast, our main character, a homeless man named Soapy, is all about disorder. From his mismatched clothes to his willingness to break windows, eat in restaurants he can't pay for, and make a ruckus on the street, Soapy is the anti-order. Soapy is like a guy stuck in opposite day. Most people try not to get arrested, and they try to stay out of jail. Soapy's backwards plans are thwarted mostly by waiters and policemen who know that he's just trying to do something bad so he can use jail as his winter hotel. Of course, just when Soapy decides that he would like to switch over to the side of order, a policeman decides to arrest Soapy for being a vagrant. The story leaves open whether Soapy will maintain his desire to put his life in, as they say, order, or continue to live the disordered existence that seems to be really hurting him.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What are some of the ways Soapy contributes to the city's disorder?
    2. Why don't any of the first five policemen arrest Soapy?
    3. How do you feel about the fact that Soapy is arrested right after he decides he no longer wants to be?

    Chew on This

    Even though the policemen in the story are antagonists to Soapy because they thwart his plans, they are shown sympathetically by O. Henry.

    The organ music helps Soapy put his thoughts in order, showing the beneficial and healing properties of music.

  • Society and Class

    Considering how short of a story "The Cop and the Anthem" is, we certainly get to see quite a few different classes throughout the story. Soapy's homeless existence and the money and power present in his surroundings are two extremes. Soapy is a member of a low economic class—the homeless and convicted criminal class—though it appears he used to belong to a very different class than he does now. By the end of the story, Soapy makes up his mind to change his class—he wants to be part of the working class, as well as a religious class. This points toward something that is woven into the idea of the American Dream—the idea that we have the power to attain a place in a higher class through hard work, luck, and determination.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why would Soapy rather go to jail than take charity? If you've ever given or received charity, how would you respond to Soapy?
    2. Why does Soapy ultimately decide to change his social and economic class?
    3. How does Soapy feel about money and the things it can buy? How does O. Henry get this across to the readers without directly stating it?
    4. Soapy has already changed social and economic classes at least once. Do you think he will be able to do so again? What does this story have to say about social mobility in the early 1900s? If you set this story in the 2000s what aspects of this theme, if any, would you need to change?

    Chew on This

    The story shows that beautiful music cuts through class distinctions—it can touch you and change you regardless of whether you are rich or poor.

    By contrasting the wealthy area of New York where Soapy lives (on a park bench), O. Henry suggests that Soapy's homelessness is motivated in part by a desire to show his contempt for the trappings of wealth.

  • Transience

    This short story shows us one day and (briefly) one morning in the life of Soapy, a homeless man living in New York City in the early 1900s. There is nothing stable in his life except the city itself and the jail cell he spends his winter in. Although told in a humorous lighthearted style, Soapy's story is rather brutal and nightmarish. "The Cop and the Anthem" doesn't judge Soapy for his lifestyle (though Soapy ultimately judges himself) nor does it romanticize it. There is lots of room for the readers to come to their own conclusions. What's important is that Soapy realizes that he doesn't like this life of impermanence and he craves something more solid. We hope he finds what he's looking for.

    Questions About Transience

    1. Does this story promote negative stereotypes about homeless people or not? Is it relevant to our understanding of the current problem of homelessness in America? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Soapy begin to crave a more permanent, stable lifestyle?
    3. Soapy believes that he chose to become homeless. What do you think motivated him to make such a choice?

    Chew on This

    The story stereotypes homeless people in contemporary America and simplifies the issues they face; it should be read alongside other material on the topic that is relevant to today's world.

    By showing that even though Soapy seems like a stereotype of a homeless person, O. Henry keeps him from being a stereotype by showing us that inside, Soapy is a deep and sensitive man.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    One moral we might get out of this story (if we were looking for morals) is that our goals and dreams, our hopes, and our plans for the future might play a big role in determining the course of our lives. For example, when we first meet Soapy his only goal is getting thrown in jail for the winter, or rather, finding food and shelter for the winter. Getting arrested and going to jail just seems like the easiest way to accomplish it. When Soapy has his change of heart, he finds these previous goals to be shallow. He realizes he could be so much more. Immediately, Soapy starts making plans to change his life and sets about redefining his goals. Since the policeman interrupts his thoughts, we don't get to find out anything about the details. Still, we suspect that Soapy has some exciting goals. If he is as serious about these goals as he seems to be, he will probably come nearer to finding happiness and fulfillment. Maybe he can use the three months in jail to really think things through and make a solid plan to for his life, like a timeout for grownups.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How do Soapy's goals change over the course of the story?
    2. We learn that Soapy wants to pick up some goals and plans he used to have, but he doesn't give us any details. What effect does this have on our understanding of the story? Do you have any goals or dreams from the past that you would like to revive? Why did you put these dreams and goals away?
    3. In the story, Soapy never achieves any of his goals. Do you think this will change now that he has better goals?

    Chew on This

    Soapy's life reflects the plans he's made and the goals he's set.

    The story suggests that having dreams and aspirations for the future is part of what makes life worth living.