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The Best Seller – O Henry

The narrator meets John Pescud the second time
  • John A Pescud worked for Cambria Steel Works and was a travelling plate-glass seller for the company.
  • He was a different kind of man. Now, the narrator met him the second time on a train bound to Pittsburgh.
  • The latter was going to Coketown, on the way to Pittsburgh. Having found him reading the best seller novel, ‘The Rose Lady and Trevelyan,’ the narrator and John began to talk about the impossibilities of such novels in the modern world because the novel was about an American rich man marrying a princess from Europe.
  • Both the narrator and John agreed upon this.
  • When the narrator asked John if he had got married, John told him how he met his wife Jessie in a similar situation as that of the novel’s story-line.
John Meets Jessie Allyn
  • Last year, John was in a train. Among the passengers, his eyes met a beautiful young woman. John wanted to talk to her.
  • When she alighted from the train at a station, John followed her.
  • He kept business aside and madly chased for the woman, changing trains whenever she did.
  • Finally the train stops at a station in Virginia and the woman gets down there. An old man comes to receive the woman.
  • John follows the woman.
  • Upon reaching the woman’s house, John stood dazed, shocked! The house she went into looked like a palace, a little old one.
  • It was unbelievable. Was he following a princess after all? Who is she? Who was that old man? John decided to know all that about her.
Staying back at Elmcroft
  • He lodged/stayed at Hotel Bay View House from where he could see the woman’s ‘palace.’ He learnt that she was the daughter of Colonel Allyn, the most known family in Virginia.
  • The next day John went to meet the woman. It was like walking into a lion’s den.
  • The young woman was in her garden, watering her plants, when John reached the gate. It was a huge, imposing gate.
  • John struck a starting by saying he had come in search of Mr. Hinkle. Quite slyly the woman said that there was no such man in the village of that name.
  • Thereafter John had to do straight talk – about his interest in the woman, his love for her, etc.
  • He said that he had been prepared to go to the end of the world to talk to her. The young woman smiled at this and said that she had been aware of that! Her words and expressions confirmed her approval but now they had to convince her father.
  • Jessie, the young woman asked John to talk to her father. A brave John Pescud got ready to talk to Jessie’s father.
  • Finally the huge gate opens for John and John walks into the biggest house in Virginia and goes numb/shocked at the scene inside. All he could see was that the Allyn’s family had been living a poor life for a long time.
  • It was a secret that the Allyns had been bankrupt/poor. Jessie was good at keeping the secret from the world outside. She never wanted anyone know her secret but for John Pescud she opened the door of mystery because she saw that John would not leave her even after seeing her miserable existence.
  • John and Jessie married. They bought a new house and left the old one. They are happily settled. John travels to his office everyday and he hopes that his life will be better.
  • The story is presenting John as a hypocrite.
The Journey
  • Jessie was returning from Illinois and going to her Virginia house, USA.
  • John A Pescud met Jessie at Cincinatti Station. He fell in love with her so he wished to talk to her.
  • The train reaches Louisville Station
  • Then at Shelbyville Station
  • Then Frankfurt Station
  • Next Lexington Station
  • Then Powhatan Jn.
  • Later Pulaski City
  • And finally Elm-croft, Virginia
The Narrator Meets John a Second Time
  1. Where was John Pescud going when the author met him the second time? What for?
    John Pescud was going to Coketown to get some petunia flowers for his wife Jessie.
    (The other day I took Jessie for a little trip to Philadelphia, and coming back she thought she saw some petunias in a pot in one of those windows over there just like some she used to raise down in the old Virginia home. So I thought, I’d drop off here for the night, and see if I could dig up some of the cuttings or blossoms for her. Here we are. Good-night, old man. I gave you the address. Come out and see us when you have time.)
  2. “It nearly took my breath.” Explain.
    John had never expected Jessie lived in a mansion. What he expected was an ordinary cottage like the rest of them in that little village. Seeing the outer grandeur of the once great mansion, John nearly lost his breath as to think he had been following a princess.
  3. Why did Pescud think of going back to the village and get posted by the postmaster?
    To know more about Jessie in this unknown part of Virginia occupied a considerable time of John Pescud. By securing a little job at the post office, John thought it would give him considerable opportunities to get in touch with Jessie.
  4. Why did John register at Hotel Bay View House?
    John was determined to get all information about Jessie and her family. Being in a strange land on a very dear mission that involved extreme risk, he thought it a good idea to stay in Hotel Bay View House, from where he could get a clear view of Jessie’s huge mansion.
  5. Neither Jessie nor her father inquired John why he was following them. Why?
    Jessie didn’t inquire John why he had been following her for such a long time, over a number of train stations because she well knew what the young man’s intentions were. She was afraid, of course, but she loved this man and liked to be chased by him. On the other hand, Jessie’s father, an absent minded, childish old man, was not aware of John’s intentions.
  6. Why does John say he was trying to look like he was hunting a garnet ring in the sand that his sister had lost at a picnic the previous Saturday?
    While following Jessie to her home, John Pescud got down near Virginia where Jessie was received by a tall old man, later turns out to be her father. John was new here and had to follow Jessie till she reached her home, without losing track. Whenever Jessie or her father turned back, John pretended to be looking for his sister’s garnet ring that had been lost. The point was, he was pretending to be looking for something very precious so that he could well convince Jessie or her father if they inquired what he had been searching for or why he had been following them.
  7. What do you understand about the best seller, Rose Lady and Travelyan?
    Though very much mentioned in the story, Rose Lady and Travelyan is not the title of any true fiction. There is no such book as this. The author presents an imaginary novel as Rose Lady and Travelyan and the two title characters. In the story, Travelyan follows a rich lady, the princess of a European country, without knowing who she really was because she traveled in the disguise of an ordinary woman. Travelyan’s love for Rose, or Rose Lady, was so pure and strong that he risked his life, fought with her bodyguards and won her at the end.
John Reaches Elmcroft
  1. Why did John ask Jessie about Mr. Hinkle?
    John knew no one in Elmcroft but he had to talk to Jessie about his love. To make a start, he made an imaginary Mr. Hinkle and asked Jessie if she knew this person.
  2. “I would have gone a thousand miles farther,” said John.”Not if you hadn’t woken up when the train started in Shelbyville?” What did Jessie mean?
    John thought that he had been following Jessie in the most discrete way, as stealthy as a cat but the fact was that Jessie had been aware of his following him everywhere. When John so proudly said that he was ready to go to the edge of the earth to talk to Jessie, she surprised him by revealing that it was not he who acted smartly and stealthily, it was she who pretended that she was unaware of his presence.
  3. Why did Jessie refuse to do further talk with John Pescud?
    The Allyn family had been once a very prominent one if Virginia’s Elmcroft but the family was reduced to zero in the course of time. In spite of this fact, the neighborhood didn’t know about the poverty that the family was suffering. People still believed that the Allyns were rich. When Jessie saw that John really loved her, she knew that he would steal away with the family’s secret and feared that he would not marry her seeing the poverty resulting in the secret’s made public and her losing him.
  4. How did John feel when he entered Jessie’s big house?
    The sight of Jessie’s big house had left a shock in John’s mind but when he crossed the gate and entered the house, he felt dumbstruck. The house that looked like a king’s palace was not more than a poor man’s cottage inside, a wormy English walnut – not enough furniture to fill an eight dollar flat.
  5. How did Colonel Allyn’s appearance seem to John A Pescud?
    When Colonel Allyn appeared, John could see the big room getting lit up, hear a band of musicians playing and see a bunch of old timers in wigs and white stockings dancing. This was part of the Colonel’s character. He was the descendant of a royal family. Though reduced to poverty, the Colonel was not ready to accept the fact. In his appearance and movements, he still radiated the once glorious status.
  6. What did John think of doing when he went cold feet in front of Colonel Allyn?
    John had been determined to talk to Colonel Allyn of his wish to marry Jessie but at the sight of the Colonel, upon his numb and cold feet, he thought of talking about his plate-glass business, to give the least hint of his love affair with the Colonel’s daughter.
  7. “The relating of anecdotes and humorous occurrences has always seemed to me, to be a particularly agreeable way of promoting and perpetuating amenities between friends.”
  8. Jessie changed several trains because she was aware of John’s chasing her. Why did she do so?
  9. Why did Jessie decide to open the doors of her secret world to John?
  10. Why did the narrator remark that John would not sell much plate-glasses in Coketown?
    The narrator thought that John was getting down at Coketown to sell plate-glasses there. Coketown was nothing more than a ragged hillside dotted with half a dozen black dismal huts of poor people so there was no prospects for business in this dreary land of slag and clinkers.
Character Questions
  1. Why did John disregard the so called best sellers even though his own life was a copy of those best sellers? OR Bring out the irony in John Pescud’s criticizing best sellers.
    John Pescud lived an ordinary life with the general line of any man but he happened to stumble on an unusual turning point that transformed his life. His marrying Jessie sounded like a fairy tale yet he himself condemned such tales. He said that he considered such romantic stories worthless. The reason for this aversion could be the realization that such a life as the one that he lived turns out to be outwardly cheerful and fine, but never a live worth living.
  2. What was John’s little code of living?
    John believed that one should abide by law when he is in his own state.
  3. What was unusual about the behavior of Jessie’s father?
    Jessie’s father behaved very childishly. He was greatly interested in telling his guests stories that children like to hear. A very much grown up man, the owner of the biggest house in his town and the descendant of the richest family of Elmcroft, Allyn was either immature or emotionally unfit for his age.

    1. More Hints – Very childish – near insane – mentally unfit – had not accepted that he had been impoverished and bankrupt – behaved like a Belted Earl – fond of telling childish stories – greatly disturbed but not disturbing others – loving and caring.
  4. “He is of the stuff that heroes are not often lucky enough to be made of.” What does the author mean by this?
    The author means it sarcastically. John Pescud was not an attractive man. He was small, his smile was wide and his eyes protruded towards the nose, altogether a poor, zero appealing figure.
  5. What do you understand about Jessie?
    Hints – Highly practical young girl – Jessie loved John but to keep her family’s secret, she tried to avoid meeting and talking to John – she was shy as any girl – determined in remaining in her decision – reasoning skills – good decision making – sympathetic towards John’s love and her father’s insanity – love for gardens and flowers (petunias)
Reference to Context
  1. “Well, that got him laughing, and I will bet that was the first laughter those ancestors and horsehair sofa had heard in many a day.”
    1. Who laughed and what got him laughing?
      Colonel Allyn, Jessie’s father, laughed because he was amused by John’s frankness and boldness at asking for Jessie in marriage.
    2. Who are the ancestors mentioned here?
      The framed photos of the Allyn family’s demised ancestors before Colonel Allyn.
    3. Why was laughter so rare in this place?
      The Allyn family had stopped laughing for pretty long time. Stricken by extreme poverty and may be by illness.
  2. “There was another time,” she goes on, “that you nearly got left – it was at Pulaski City.”
    “Yes,” says I, “I remember. My foot slipped as I was jumping on the step, and I nearly tumbled off.”
    “I know,” says she. “And – and I- I was afraid you had, John A. I was afraid you had.”

    1. What misadventure occurred to John at Pulaski City?
    2. What was Jessie’s reaction to this?
    3. Bring out the anti climax of the story from these lines.
  3. “I married her a year ago,” said John, “I told you I built a house in the East End. The belted- I mean the Colonel-is there, too. I find him waiting at the gate whenever I get back from a trip to hear any new story, I might have picked up on the road.”
    1. Did Jessie’s choosing John go well with her? How do you know?
    2. What for is Colonel Allyn waiting for John?
  4. I glanced downward and saw the best-seller. I picked it up and set it carefully farther along on the floor of the car, where the raindrops would not fall upon it. And then, suddenly, I smiled, and seemed to see that life has no geographical bounds.
    “Good-luck to you, Trevelyan,” I said. “And may you get the petunias for your princess!”

    1. Why does the narrator pick up the best seller that John had earlier hurled on the floor?
    2. What geographical bounds is the narrator referring to?
    3. Whom does the narrator refer to as ‘princess?’ Why?
Short Answers
  1. Who is the author of this story?
    O. Henry is the author of this story.
  2. What book was John reading when the narrator met him in the train?
    The Rose Lady and Travelyan
  3. What was John’s profession? For which company did he work?
    John worked as a travelling plat-glass agent. He worked for Cambria Steel Works at Pittsburgh.
  4. Why did John follow Jessie?
    John followed Jessie because he had fallen in love with her. He wanted to talk to her about his love.
  5. Why did Jessie change several trains?
    Jessie changed several trains because she knew that John was following her. She did not want to give him an opportunity to talk to her.
  6. Why did Jessie not want to give John an opportunity to talk to her?
    Jessie did not want to give John an opportunity to talk to her because she did not want him find out that her family was impoverished.
  7. Who received Jessie at the Virginia station?
    Jessie’s father, Colonel Allyn, received her at the last station.
  8. What made Jessie change her mind and accept John?
    After talking to John, Jessie saw that John was not an ordinary guy. She saw that his love was real so there was no harm inviting him into her poor house.
  9. What did John see in Jessie’s house?
    John saw no luxuries in Jessie’s house. It was like a worm-eaten walnut.
  10. Why does the narrator describe Jessie’s house as a worm-eaten walnut?
    Jessie Allyn’s house was the most imposing and the biggest in Elmcroft. In spite of its majestic looks, the house had nothing it is. It was an empty house with a garden outside and poverty inside.
  11. Where did John stay back in Elmcroft?
    John stayed back in Hotel Bay View House.
  12. Where did John get down to get petunias for Jessie?
    John got down at Cocktown to get petunias for Jessie.
  13. What was very particular about Colonel Allyn’s character?
    Colonel Allyn was not mentally stable. He behaved like a small child telling childish stories to everyone he met.
  14. Why did John hurl the best seller on the floor?
    John was reading the best seller, Rose lady and Travelyan, the story of an American man falling in love with a princess from Europe. Although the novel was a best seller, John disliked the story because its story was similar to his own life. In his opinion, stories are good when they are just read but they can be painful when such incidents happen in our lives.

What do you think?

Bholi – KA Abbas

Quality – John Galsworthy