A Retrieved Reformation

A Retrieved Reformation Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why does the narrator compare Jimmy Valentine to a phoenix?

    "A Retrieved Reformation" follows the transformation of Jimmy Valentine, a notorious safecracker, into Ralph D. Spencer, a respected shoe-shop owner and fiancé to a banker's daughter. The comparison to a phoenix is an allusion to a mythological bird that lives for centuries before being consumed in an inferno from which it emerges reborn, resurrected from death to live out its life cycle again and again. In colloquial language, the phoenix has come to mean a person who has emerged renewed after an apparent disaster. By alluding to a phoenix, the narrator casts Jimmy's change of identity in mythic and violent terms: he must heroically destroy his identity as Jimmy Valentine so that he may emerge as Ralph Spencer. The full significance of the allusion is not established until later in the story, when the phoenix has to dive into the flames once again: Ralph burns the image of himself as respectable by revealing his identity as a skilled safecracker, and Jimmy is resurrected for another life cycle.

  2. 2

    Why does the narrator mention Jimmy's looks so often in the story?

    Jimmy is described as youthful, pleasant-looking, and nice-looking. His appearance is significant because it engenders strangers' trust in him. Starting with the warden and ending with Ben Price, everyone throughout the story sees some intangible yet trustworthy quality in Jimmy. Jimmy does not display any overt signs of criminality or untrustworthiness, and this clean image allows him to swindle people in the towns in which he briefly settles before committing a robbery and skipping out. Even when his intentions are pure, Jimmy relies on his ability to garner trust and then exploit it so that he may ingratiate himself into Annabel's family. When Jimmy turns out to have a noble heart after all, it becomes clear that what people saw in Jimmy was real; by leading a dishonest life, he was misleading himself by neglecting his selfless nature.

  3. 3

    Why does Ben Price pretend that Jimmy is Ralph Spencer at the end of the story?

    Knowing that Ben Price has not only closed in on him but witnessed him using his tools on the bank vault, Jimmy surrenders himself to the detective. However, Ben acts strangely and feigns ignorance, suggesting that he doesn't know what "Mr. Spencer" is talking about. Ben has been determined to arrest Jimmy but when he has the chance to, he realizes there would be no point: having witnessed Jimmy's selfless act of opening the safe, Ben understands that Jimmy is marrying Annabel's daughter out of love, not because he is planning to rob the bank. Having seen that Jimmy is a reformed man, Ben Price is content to let Jimmy live his new an honest life under his assumed identity. To send him back to prison would only risk continuing their pointless cycle of catch-and-release.