'The Romance of a Busy Broker' by O. Henry, also known as William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), is a short story characterized by sentimentality and surprise twist endings, which have become signature features of the author's works. This story encapsulates both of these qualities.
The story revolves around Harvey Maxwell, a stockbroker who leads a hectic life. At the beginning of the narrative, he energetically arrives at the office with his stenographer, Miss Leslie, who possesses the ability to write shorthand. Without delay, Maxwell immerses himself in his work, while his observant confidential clerk, Pitcher, watches.
The third-person narrator describes Miss Leslie as naturally beautiful, despite her modest and unadorned appearance. She wears a grey and discreet dress but accessorizes with a black hat adorned with the gold-green wing of a macaw bird.
Pitcher notices a change in Miss Leslie's behavior that day—instead of heading straight to her desk, she lingers in the outer office once Maxwell becomes engrossed in his work. When questioned by Maxwell, she simply smiles and responds with a vague "Nothing" before taking her seat at her desk.
Miss Leslie approaches Pitcher and inquires if Maxwell mentioned anything about hiring a replacement stenographer. Pitcher confirms this, informing her that he contacted the agency to arrange potential replacements. Nevertheless, Miss Leslie reassures him that she will continue her work until a suitable replacement is found.
The day proves busy due to stock market activity, with Maxwell diligently focusing on his tasks. When a representative from the stenographer's agency arrives to inquire about the position, Maxwell accuses Pitcher of losing his mind and denies any knowledge of ordering a replacement. He praises Miss Leslie, affirming her exceptional performance.
The busy day progresses until lunchtime when Maxwell momentarily pauses his work, enticed by the scent of lilac emanating from Miss Leslie. Overwhelmed by his thoughts, Maxwell approaches her desk and abruptly proposes marriage, acknowledging the suddenness of the proposal due to his lack of prior courtship.
Rising from her seat with tearful eyes, Miss Leslie reveals that they were already married the previous evening, and Maxwell, consumed by his work, had forgotten this fact.
'The Romance of a Busy Broker' is a story that benefits from a careful reading to fully grasp the intricacies of the plot. Once aware of the twist—that Harvey Maxwell and Miss Leslie are already married—many details in the story take on new significance and can be fully understood.
Maxwell's Temperament and Actions
Maxwell's demeanor upon arriving at work that morning, surprising the usually impassive Pitcher, gains new meaning when viewed through the lens of his recent marriage. The spring in his step reflects his happiness as a newlywed.
The fact that Maxwell and Miss Leslie arrive together at the office reveals their relationship extends beyond the professional realm. It is noteworthy that they arrive at half-nine, later than Pitcher, suggesting they may have allowed themselves a slight delay to celebrate their nuptials. Maxwell's delayed arrival is unusual for a broker and implies a prioritization of his personal life over work.
Miss Leslie's surprise and her lingering outside Maxwell's office before taking her place at her desk reflect her disappointment as Maxwell swiftly shifts back into work mode, seemingly forgetting their marriage. This explains her hesitation and desire to savor the moments before returning to her role as a stenographer.
Motivations and Observations
Knowing Maxwell's absentmindedness, Miss Leslie questions Pitcher about Maxwell's plans to replace her. Initially, readers may speculate that Maxwell is dissatisfied with her work and intends to terminate her employment. This inquiry reflects her concern as an employee worried about the security of her job.
In reality, she has discussed giving up her work to prepare for married life and potentially become a mother. During that period, secretarial positions were typically held by young, unmarried women who left their jobs upon marriage.
Maxwell's intense work focus throughout the day, initially interpreted as dedication to his tasks, takes on new meaning when he suddenly proposes to Miss Leslie. It becomes apparent that something other than work has been occupying his thoughts.
The Surprising Revelation and Interpretation
The unexpected revelation at the end of 'The Romance of a Busy Broker'—that Maxwell and Miss Leslie are already married—raises intriguing questions about Maxwell's motivations. How could he so quickly forget that Miss Leslie is his wife? If he is devoted to his work at the expense of everything else, how does the mere scent of Miss Leslie's lilac fragrance easily distract him?
One interpretation suggests that 'The Romance of a Busy Broker,' while an entertaining story with a satisfying ending, comments on the intricate relationship between men's work lives and their romantic lives. O. Henry, although predating Sigmund Freud's ideas about sublimation (the suppression of inconvenient desires channeled into other areas, such as work or wealth accumulation), seems to capture this concept. Harvey Maxwell represents this phenomenon, particularly in a more restrained society where desires often had to be suppressed, especially in professional settings.
'The Romance of a Busy Broker' presents O. Henry's unique storytelling style, combining sentimentality and unexpected twists to provide an entertaining narrative while offering insights into the dynamics between work and love in human relationships.