What does "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry indicate about the society and time period in which it was written?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Published in 1906, O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi” has become a classic Christmas story.  Known for the twist at the end of his stories, this ending does not disappoint. Giving the perfect gift is something everyone wants to give to that special someone. This is the premise for the story.

The two main characters are Dell and Jim Young, a very much in love couple.  This is there first Christmas together in their flat  in New York. Della, a homemaker, is completely devoted to Jim.  In the early 20th century, the roles of the sexes were clearly defined: the woman took care of the home and children and the man earned the living.

There are several aspects of the story that indicate the time period in which it was written.  Obviously, the money and cost of items signal that the story comes from an earlier era. 

The rent for the apartment [flat] is $8.00 per week.

Jim’s salary was $20.00 per week.

It has taken Della several months to save $1.87 for her Christmas present for Jim.

Della’s hair flows below her knees. Although there are women with long hair, it is a rare today to have that extreme length.  When curling her hair, Della had to heat the curling irons with gas. Della was able to walk down the street and find a place to sell her hair, probably to be made into wigs. 

Jim carried a pocket watch.  Common in the early part of the 20th century, today almost all men wear wrist watches. A normal practice was to pass the pocket watch through the family's male generations. This is a custom no longer shared since the pocket watches are no longer used.  Buying a watch fob as a Christmas present is certainly a thing of the past.

 It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious  ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch.

Jim’s gift to Della was a set of decorative hair combs.  These are no longer worn today.  They would have been worn in the back of the hair usually to keep any stray hair up in the bun and also for decoration.

The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jeweled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.

The language and vocabulary of O.Henry is much different than that of present writing.  The slang that the characters use is typical of the turn of the century. 

The wonderful part of the story comes when they discover that each of them have sold the thing that was valued in order to buy a gift for the other one.  Della cut and sold her beautiful hair; she will have to let the hair grow out to wear the bejeweled combs Jim gave her.  Jim sold his watch to buy Della the combs; he will have to put his fob in a drawer until he can buy the watch back.  At any rate, these were valuable gifts because they came from the heart.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One other important thing that "The Gift of the Magi" reveals about the period and the society of the time is that men went to work and women stayed at home. Even though Della badly wanted some spending money in order to buy her husband a present, there was no way for her to earn it. "A woman's place is in the home" was the common motto voiced just as often by women as by men. Della can only raise money by selling her beautiful hair, and after the hair is gone she is without further resources. There were a few women who worked outside the home as teachers and nurses, and there were "fallen women" who worked as prostitutes; but for the vast majority of women in America the only available career was as a housewife and mother.

Della must be bored much of the time because she has no children to care for as yet, and the housekeeping and cooking in a small flat would not consume much of her time. There was of course no television in those days--and there wasn't even radio! Her biggest adventure of the day was going shopping for food. She would probably carry a big wicker basket, and she would visit a number of different little mom-and-pop shops to get bread, milk, chops, vegetables, and fruit. She would get to know all the shopkeepers on a personal basis, because these shops did not permit self-service like today's impersonal supermarkets.

Jim evidently had to work long hours. He didn't get home until a little after seven o'clock, and he undoubtedly had to work six days a week. This was before Henry Ford set a precedent by establishing a forty-hour week for his factory workers. One of the best things about O. Henry's short stories is the way they capture the look and feel of the times he wrote about. It was still the horse-and-buggy era. 


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