A Dollar’s Worth by O.Henry: Summary and Analysis

the text "a dollar's worth written by o henry" written next to the portrait of o henry

This short story by O.Henry, published in the early 1900s, explores the theme of justice, compassion, and love.

A Dollar’s Worth: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens with a letter. The letter is a threat from one of the convicts to the judge Mr. Derwent, who had presided over the case leading to his conviction. 

The judge, used to such threats in his line of work over the years, brushes it aside, although he does make a note of the threat against the district attorney.

The district attorney, Mr. Littlefield, is engaged to be married to Nancy Derwent, the judge’s daughter.

The judge informs Littlefield of such a threat, who smiles with contempt, but is curious to know the writer, who, he soon learns, is a man nicknamed Mexico Sam.

The distraction didn’t last long, as the district attorney was soon called upon to judge the case of counterfeiting by Rafael Ortiz.

There were witnesses to him passing on the counterfeit coin to purchase a medicine bottle. According to the deputy that brought him in, this was the first time he was caught.

A woman named Joya Trevinas soon visits them and claims to be the one that made the counterfeit money and got Rafael to pass it along. It was her fault that he was in prison, and she would happily swap places with him.

Littlefield, having seen such occurrences commonly, denied offering to make any such accommodation. He would prosecute based on evidence and nothing else. Rafael would have to make his case in court.

Littlefield and Miss Derwent went off for plover shooting later that day. While busy enjoying the shooting and each other’s company, they soon see a man attempting to attack them. Littlefield tries to keep Miss Derwent out of harm’s way while struggling to defend himself against the attacker.

Littlefield gets minor injuries in a crossfire that ensues, while Mexico Sam, their attacker, dies.

The following day in the court, Littlefield requests the court to strike off the case and requests a pardon for Rafael Ortiz.

It is later revealed in the conversation between Littlefield and Kilpatrick that the fake lead counterfeit coin ended up saving their life. He also asked for the address of Ortiz’s girlfriend, Nancy Derwent, who had been meaning to meet her.

Who doesn’t like happy endings?

A Dollar’s Worth: Review and My Thoughts

The story brought back memories of a movie I watched years ago. A movie called The Judge starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.

The story, like the movie, explores the themes of justice, compassion, revenge, love, and gratitude. 

A disgruntled convict, a fair judge, a clever deputy, and two young men, willing to do whatever it takes to shield their love from harm. The thing about the story is that it is authentic and believable. The evolution of the district attorney’s perspective is very organic and, as a result, heartwarming.

I can do nothing. The case comes up in the morning, and he will have to make his fight before the court.

Pity hasn’t a place in jurisprudence.

Can’t you go down the jacals and find where Joya Trevinas lives. Miss Derwent wants to know.

Not to say that the judge was any less fair after, but the incident with Mexico Sam, and seeing the mortal threat to the love of his life and his own, opened his eyes to the importance of compassion. At the end of the day, we are all humans.

Nancy Derwent was shown to be compassionate from the start. Her reaction to the Trevinas’s visit was very different from Littlefield’s.

Can’t you do anything for them, Bob? It’s such a little thing – one counterfeit dollar – to ruin the happiness of two lives! She was in danger of death and he did it to save her. Doesn’t the law know the feeling of pity?

I am an expert by no means (read I know nothing), and to me, this quote from Julian Baggini captured the essence of this short story:

A society needs both justice and compassion, a head and heart if it is to be civilized.

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