A Retrieved Reformation

A Retrieved Reformation Themes


By depicting Jimmy giving up his life of crime, the story asserts that it is possible for criminals to redeem themselves and become honest and well-intentioned members of society. Jimmy, however, follows an unconventional path toward redemption: upon release from prison, he immediately returns to his lifestyle as a duplicitous safecracker who travels from town to town, assuming new identities and abusing people's trust. While prison fails to give him any reason to reform himself, Jimmy is willing to give up his criminal identity when he meets Annabel's eye for the first time. To redeem himself from a life of crime, Jimmy invents a new identity as an honest shoemaker; in doing so, he creates an umbrella of dishonesty under which he can behave honestly. While Jimmy's redemption is for the most part only known to himself, the story concludes with Jimmy having gained credibility as an honest man in Ben Price's eyes, and Jimmy's redemption is confirmed.


The flexibility of Jimmy's identity exhibits the story's thematic preoccupation with not only what identity is but what it can be. To different people, Jimmy is known variously as Jimmy Valentine, Prisoner 9762, Mr. James Valentine, and Ralph D. Spencer. His lack of attachment to a consistent identity exposes how human society relies on the trust that accumulates around an identity—a trust that Jimmy expertly exploits. Even when he decides to become a better man and give up his life as a criminal, Jimmy puts his identity inhabitation skills to use: paradoxically, he employs dishonesty to invent an identity as an honest man. Only through dishonestly playing the role of Ralph Spencer can Jimmy fulfill the warden's request that Jimmy become a reformed man.


The theme of freedom is introduced in the story's opening paragraph when Jimmy receives a pardon letter. It is an ironic freedom, because while Jimmy has been freed from prison, the prison does not give Jimmy any help to free himself from his identity as a criminal, besides five dollars and a lecture. Unable to avoid his compulsion to open safes, Jimmy is a police target soon after his release; it seems the cycle of capture and release will continue. Even when Jimmy finds a reason to reform, and gives up his life of crime, his post-release safe robberies put his freedom at risk. His freedom as an honest man is also constrained by the false identity he must uphold. At the end of the story, Ben Price grants Jimmy his freedom by pretending not to know who Jimmy Valentine is.


The theme of determination is conveyed in the parallel ways in which Jimmy and Ben advance through the story. After Jimmy's release from prison, he is driven to resume the criminal safecracking activities that had landed him there in the first place. He works methodically and cleverly, using tools he has carefully designed. He seems to have no ambition other than to open safes—until he meets Annabel, at which point he becomes determined to gain her love and trust. The determination Jimmy has in his criminal life transfers to his new identity as an honest man; he is determined to be successful and well-liked. Meanwhile, Ben Price is determined to slowly but thoroughly collect evidence that will allow him to arrest Jimmy and put him away from a long sentence. Their competing determinations—for Jimmy, to remain free; for Ben, to put Jimmy away—culminate at the bank door. However, an ironic reversal occurs: when Jimmy gives up on his determination and capitulates to Ben, Ben capitulates to Jimmy.