“The Furnished Room” by American author O. Henry (the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter) is a short story in the realism genre that also incorporates O. Henry’s trademark situational irony and surprise ending. O. Henry, a resident of New York City at the time, often wrote about life in the city and published short fiction in the weekly magazine New York Sunday World. “The Furnished Room” was first published in 1904 in serial form. O. Henry later published the short story in 1906 in his short story collection The Four Million, which also included his most well-known short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” “The Furnished Room,” which examines the themes of Transience, Loneliness and Isolation, The Cost of Urbanization, and Hope Versus Hopelessness, follows the journey of a young man who arrives at a boarding house in New York City in search of his lost love, Eloise. Events lead him to believe his search is futile and he consequently ends his life. In a twist at the end of the story, readers discover Eloise suffered the same fate.
This guide uses paragraph numbers for citations and refers to the free online version of the text that is included in the Project Gutenberg edition of the short story collection The Four Million, published in 2001.
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Content Warning: The source material references suicide.
Set on the Lower West Side of New York City in the early 20th century, “The Furnished Room” opens with a description of the transient theater population who frequented boarding houses, staying for short periods of time, only to move on to the next location. The reader is then introduced to a nameless young man who has been traveling and rings the bell of the 12th boarding house he has visited. The housekeeper, Mrs. Purdy, confirms she has a room on the “third-floor-back” that has been vacant for a week (Paragraph 6).
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As Mrs. Purdy leads him to the room, the protagonist notes the dingy environment of the boarding house, which has a decaying, musty smell. Mrs. Purdy shows the young man the furnished room and she describes some of the previous tenants who acted and sang in the theaters. The young man takes the room and pays a week in advance. He then asks if Mrs. Purdy remembers a young woman named Miss Eloise Vashner, whom the young man describes as a singer with red hair and a mole above her left eyebrow. Mrs. Purdy states that she does not remember anyone of that description.
Once Mrs. Purdy leaves, the young man recalls the past five months of searching for Eloise in New York City since she disappeared from home. The young man observes the dreary state of the room with its ragged furniture, revealing the vast number of previous inhabitants. As he notes various objects left by previous tenants as well as stains and fingerprints, he listens to the sounds of other renters in the boarding house.
The young man detects a familiar scent of mignonette, which is revealed to be Eloise’s favorite perfume. When he smells the perfume, he cries out, thinking Eloise must be in the room. He determines Eloise must have been in that same room at some point, and he begins to search for any object that would confirm her presence. Though he tears apart the room, looking for anything that might reveal she was a prior tenant, he can find no trace of Eloise apart from the scent of mignonette.
The young man seeks out Mrs. Purdy to inquire once more about prior tenants. However, the housekeeper does not mention Eloise’s name in the list of previous occupants, dashing the young man’s hopes. Once the young man returns to the room, he discovers that he can no longer smell Eloise’s perfume, leaving the room feeling dead and the young man feeling hopeless. He rips off the bedsheets, tearing them into strips, and seals up every crack in the room with the fabric. Turning on the gas, he lies down on the bed, ready to die of asphyxiation.
The final scene takes place in the basement of the boarding house as Mrs. Purdy and another housekeeper, Mrs. McCool, share beer and conversation. As they talk, Mrs. Purdy mentions that she has a new lodger in the third-floor-back room. Mrs. McCool expresses surprise that her friend was able to rent out the room as the previous tenant died from gas poisoning only a week earlier. Mrs. Purdy points out she has to rent the room to make a living and notes that the young woman who died by suicide had a mole above her left eyebrow.
By O. Henry