Summary of “While the Auto Waits” by O. Henry: Plot Synopsis & Theme Analysis

“While the Auto Waits” is a short story by O. Henry about a young man and woman from different social classes who meet in a park. Following this summary of “While the Auto Waits”, we’ll take a quick look at its most prominent theme.

“While the Auto Waits” Summary

At twilight, a beautiful young woman in a gray dress, hat and veil sits on a park bench as she has the last two days. A young man who had noticed her hovers nearby. He gets his opportunity when she drops her book; he quickly picks it up and hands it to her. He makes a comment about the weather, and she invites him to sit. He looks ordinary and neat.

He compliments her appearance in an affectedly confident manner. She responds coldly, but offers to excuse the remark, chalking it up to his lower station in life. He awkwardly pleads for forgiveness and she tells him to move on.

They talk a little about the people walking by. The girl isn’t curious about them. She sits in the park to be near the common person; her elevated social status keeps her away from them.

He gives his name, Parkenstacker, but she withholds hers as it would be immediately recognizable, as she’s from one of the most prominent families in the country. She spoke to Mr. Parkenstacker because he’s a normal man, untouched by wealth and status. She’s tired of money and luxuries and the usual kind of man she meets.

While the Auto Waits Summary by O. Henry
“While the Auto Waits” Summary, Cont’d

Parkenstacker ventures that having money must be a good thing. She says having enough is good, but millions is monotonous. Sometimes hearing the ice tinkle in her champagne glass nearly drives her mad. Parkenstacker, who’s interested in the ways of the wealthy, points out that ice isn’t added to champagne. The woman explains this is a new thing introduced by a visiting Prince; the wealthy need to amuse themselves somehow.

She thinks she would love a man from a lowly station in life. Right now, she’s being pursued by two notables, both with harsh personalities.

She inquires about Parkenstacker’s work. He’s a cashier in the restaurant with a blazing sign that can be seen from where they sit. His shift starts in about an hour.

She looks at her watch and gets up hurriedly. He asks about seeing her again, but she’s not sure. She’s heading for a fancy car waiting at the upper corner of the park, which Parkenstacker remembers seeing. He offers to walk her to it, but she asks him to wait at the bench for ten minutes because the monogram on the car will give away her identity.

Parkenstacker watches as she walks to the park’s edge and turns toward the car. He sneaks into the trees and bushes and keeps her in sight. She passes the car and goes into the restaurant with the blazing sign. She goes into the back and soon returns to the front without her hat and veil. She takes the place of the girl at the cashier’s station.

Parkenstacker walks back along the sidewalk. On the ground, he sees the book the girl had been reading—New Arabian Nights by Stevenson.

He gets into the waiting car, relaxes on the cushions, and tells the chauffeur to take him to the club.

(End of “While the Auto Waits” Summary)

“While the Auto Waits” Theme Analysis

The broad theme in “While the Auto Waits” is obviously identity. More specifically it’s affectation, as both main characters pretend to be someone they’re not.

The young woman pretends to be rich and from one of the most prominent families in the country. The motivation behind wanting to seem important is probably relatable to most people. Less clear is the young man’s motivation in pretending to be common to get to know a woman. Presumably, he thought this would facilitate things but I’m not sure why.

In the end, his pretense destroys any possibility of them getting closer. When he claims to be a cashier at the restaurant she works in, of course she knows he’s not because she works there. But all she knows is that he’s lying about this, which makes him untrustworthy. Likewise, when he sees her true identity and realizes she’s been lying, he probably views her the same way. Neither realizes the other was simply play-acting in the same way they were, without any bad intent.

The story demonstrates the loss that can result when we pretend to be something we’re not. When we put on false appearances, as it’s tempting to do to make ourselves more likable, we miss out the chance to make a genuine connection with someone.

I hope this summary of “While the Auto Waits” and a brief look at a theme was helpful.