Wednesday, 14 July 1999

O. Henry: Roads of Destiny (1903)

Edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co.
Review number: 289

Roads of Destiny is O. Henry's longest collection of short stories, containing tales that are longer than the two or three page miniatures which fill the other volumes of his work. The title story is probably his lengthiest individual story. It is distinctly more experimental than most of O. Henry's output, being reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce or Edgar Allan Poe. The idea is simple enough; the young French shepherd David sets out for Paris, seeking fame and fortune with his poetry, the toast of his native village. He reaches a junction, with no clues as to which way to go. The story then splits into three, one part for each choice (left fork, right fork, or turn back). But the road he takes doesn't matter, for they all lead to his destiny: to be killed with a pistol belonging to the Marquis de Beaupertys. The story itself is told in Henry's usual style, so it is rather less hard edged than Bierce or Poe, but it carries an unusually stern message (that we cannot escape our fate).

There is a book by Peter Dickinson called Chance, Luck and Destiny, a collection of anecdotes, stories, and non-fictional writing (if you count descriptions of methods used by fortune-tellers as non-fiction). One of the strands which runs through this book is a set of stories based on the Oedipus legend, which detail different ways in which he could have lived his life, yet still have ended up killing his father and marrying his mother. For example, in one version, he could have disbelieved the oracle, returning to his adoptive parents, taken part in a war with Thebes in which he killed Laius in battle and received Jocasta as part of the booty.

Such non-linear narratives are today relatively common, particularly after the popularity of role playing game books, where the reader chooses from a series of options at the end of each section. ("If you go through the door, turn to page 67.) But Roads of Destiny is one of the earliest examples of such writing that I know of.

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