Short Story #286: The Unknown Quantity by O. Henry

Title:  The Unknown Quantity

Author:  O. Henry


O Henry - Humorist.  Image source: Kinsolving captured the market on flour in New York and thus became insanely rich by increasing the price of bread.  After Kinsolving's death, his son, Dan is left with the fortune.  He goes to a good friend, Kenwitz who was a watchmaker and a socialist for advce.  He explains that he learned his father's fortune earned by nickel and diming already poor folk.  He now wants to make amends for this crime.  Kenwitz explains that it's impossible for him to do it.  Kenwitz directs him to charities, but Dan wants to give it directly back to the people who it was taken from.  Kenwitz slowly explains that it isn't that easy because the loss of income had exponential impact on people.  Too much damage had been wrought by his father's actions.  When Dan challenges him to point out examples, Kenwitz identifies how people had to close their shops and then lost their sanity or dropped further into turmoil.  However, Dan manages to push these instances to the side because the money would go to the insurance company or the government.  As final example, Kenwitz brings him into an apartment where a woman slaves away making clothes for chump change.  This woman too works there as a result of the bread price increase.  Kenwitz introduces Dan and the woman sends them from the apartment.  Dan thanks Kenwitz for what he's done but Kenwitz doesn't understand the thanks until two months later when he finds the woman dressed up and explaining that Dan married her. 


The larger message of the story reminds me much of the poem/proverb, "For Want of Nail":

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. 

So much of the impact of both good and bad actions are so often immeasurable, which only leads me to think we should do our best to do good acts because of their maximum impact.   Of course, that's easier said than done as the story points out, trying to do good can be equally challenging.   

Short Story #286 out of 365
Rating:  3 (out of 5 stars)
Date Read:  10/1/2014
Source:  You can read the full short story at this website.  

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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