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Is This Good Dialogue?… starring O. Henry!

November 7, 2020

Short stories should be more popular than they are. They’re short, so they don’t take long to read. The writing tends to be more efficient than the writing in novels, so readers don’t feel like they’ve wasted their time with filler.

When I feel like reading but I don’t have a lot of time, I’ll sometimes grab an O. Henry short story. Critics today might call his stories too hokey. His characters spoke in unrealistically long and complicated sentences. The stories make references to stuff that doesn’t exist anymore.

O. Henry’s characters weren’t all that bright, but they used big words and spoke in long sentences. My question is… is this actually good dialogue? Here’s an excerpt from the short story “The Ransom of Mack.”

*****

One evening Mack spoke up and asked me if I was much apprised in the habits and policies of women folks.

“Why, yes,” says I, in a tone of voice; “I know ’em from Alfred to Omaha. The feminine nature and similitude,” says I, “is as plain to my sight as the Rocky Mountains is to a blue-eyed burro. I’m onto all their little sidesteps and punctual discrepancies.”

“I tell you, Andy,” says Mack with a kind of sigh. “I never had the least amount of intersection with their predispositions. Maybe I might have had a proneness in respect to their vicinity, but I never took the time. I made my own living since I was fourteen; and I never seemed to get my ratiocinations equipped with sentiments usually depicted toward the sect. I sometimes wish I had,” says old Mack.

“They’re an adverse study,” says I, “and adapted to points of view. Although they vary in rationale, I have found ’em quite often obviously differing from each other in divergencies of contrast.”

“It seems to me,” goes on Mack, “that a man had better take ’em in and secure his inspirations of the sect when he’s young and so preordained. I let my chance go by; and I guess I’m too old now to go hopping into the curriculum.”

*****

The dialogue remains like this throughout the rest of the story. In fact, almost all of O. Henry’s characters spoke like this in almost every story that he wrote (that I’ve read).

I mean, I kind of like this dialogue, but reading too much of it at one time can give me a headache.

But enough about me! What do you think? Do you like O. Henry’s style of dialogue? Would too much of it at one time get old? Most importantly, are the men’s observations about women accurate?

4 Comments
  1. Honestly, the dialogue is hard to read, I can’t imagine the average person spoke that way. I like the words he used, but strung together makes my eyes cross while reading them. And what exactly are “punctual discrepancies”. I gather the fact that they don’t understand women, makes them almost fearful of them, although they like they way they look.

    • I wasn’t alive back then, but I’m pretty sure most people didn’t talk like that. It was probably one of O. Henry’s writing gimmicks.

      If people talked like that back then, I would have gotten a lot of headaches.

      • Me too! I think I would have had a perpetually blank expression on my face – having to listen to people speaking that way.

  2. I LOVED O’Henry when I was a kid. Don’t even ask me why. I was 12 years old and I had this book which was a collection of 100 of his stories and I read them over and over again and copied some out into my notebooks. I thought he was some sort of key to a deep intellect. I DON’T know why. Reading this passage again as an adult gives me a headache. It’s awful dialogue. Did people actually speak like this in times gone by? I’d have to have a dictionary with me wherever I went. Dialogue, in my humble opinion, is meant to impart the thoughts of a character in a way which is telling of the character’s personality and opinion. This does no such thing. It’s just like an essay cut up into various pieces and attributed to a character. I suppose it’s meant to be like that, a sort of social commentary on how men relate to women. Either way, I didn’t understand what those men thought of women by the end of it. They didn’t have time for women, or time to understand women, and so were afraid to do so? Women are too complicated?

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