The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry
“The Gift of the Magi” O. Henry
The following entry presents criticism on O. Henry's short story “The Gift of the Magi” (1906).
“The Gift of the Magi” (1906) remains one of the most recognizable and frequently anthologized stories in American literature. In its time the tale was extremely popular, both commercially and critically, and O. Henry was called the “Yankee Maupaussant.” Today the story is considered juvenilia and has not garnered much serious critical attention. “The Gift of the Magi” initially appeared in one of O. Henry's best-known collection of stories, The Four Million, which was published in 1906.
Plot and Major Characters
On Christmas Eve, a young married woman named Della has cut and sold her long, beautiful hair to earn the rest of the money she needs for her husband's Christmas present: a platinum chain for his treasured watch. When her husband, Jim, returns to their apartment, he is shocked to see her hair gone; he has sold his watch to buy her a pair of tortoise-shell combs for her long hair. Touched by his thoughtfulness, Della assures him that her hair will grow back and she gives him the watch chain. When he sees the gift, he lovingly tells her that he has sold his cherished watch to buy her the combs for her hair. The story concludes with an omniscient narrator praising the sacrifice and love of the young couple.
Critics have noted the irony of the young couple sacrificing their most treasured possessions—Della's hair and Jim's watch—in order to buy each other gifts related to those same possessions. Poverty is also a prominent theme, as Della saved her money for months to buy the platinum watch chain, but she still had to cut and sell her beautiful hair. The descriptions of the environs and the couple's clothing also underscore the indigence of the characters in the story. As O. Henry was categorized as a realist, “The Gift of the Magi” has been perceived as an authentic, anecdotal look at lower-class American life near the turn of the century. The story is also thought to exemplify the author's interest in the elements of surprise and trick endings, as the impact of the mutual sacrifice is not revealed until the conclusion of the tale.
Upon its publication in The Four Million, “The Gift of the Magi” caught the attention of the American public as well as reviewers. It was frequently mentioned as a prime example of O. Henry's work and has appeared in several anthologies of American short stories. Yet the story has mostly failed to attract serious critical analysis. There has been some debate as to the source of “The Gift of the Magi,” and a recent critic, John A. Rea, has determined where the plotline for the story originated. Many commentators consider the story more of an anecdote, devoid of complex characters and themes. Recently “The Gift of the Magi” has been classified and republished as a story for children. Despite the lack of considerable critical attention, most literary scholars still consider it one of the best Christmas stories ever written.
Cabbages and Kings 1904
The Four Million 1906
Heart of the West 1907
The Trimmed Lamp 1907
The Gentle Grafter 1908
The Voice of the City 1908
Roads of Destiny 1909
Let Me Feel Your Pulse 1910
Strictly Business 1910
The Two Women 1910
Sixes and Sevens 1911
Rolling Stones 1912
Waifs and Strays 1917
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SOURCE: “‘The Gift of the Magi,’” in The Independent, Vol. 90, No. 3566, April 7, 1917, pp. 76–81.
[In the following essay, Law asserts that “The Gift of the Magi” “illustrates a unique and artistic type of the short story, founded partly on French models, but springing more truly from the virile life and thought of America.”]
Of all recent American short story writers none is more popular than O. Henry. At the age of forty, when he gained his public, he had but eight years more to live, but he made those last eight years a triumph of success. And altho he wrote so rapidly that his powers of production astonished every one, he could scarcely produce stories rapidly enough. The secrets of his great success lay in a wide observation of men, women and books; freedom from all literary conventions; humor and sympathy, and real genius in the story-telling art.
The years before O. Henry became successful were really aids to success, for he was unconsciously gathering material from which to draw lavishly in his last few years of work. In actual life he was William Sidney Porter: “O. Henry” is a pseudonyn chosen because he was attracted by the name “Henry” seen in a New Orleans newspaper, and he thought the letter “O” easy to write. O. Henry was born in Green[s]boro, North Carolina, in 1862, but he lived as citizen of a wide world, seeing life in Central America and...
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SOURCE: “O. Henryism,” in Short Story-Writing: An Art or a Trade?, Thomas Seltzer, Inc., 1923, pp. 29–47.
[In the following essay, Fagin provides an overview of O. Henry's short stories and praises the ingenuity of “The Gift of the Magi.”]
The mottoes of most of our fiction periodicals are told on their covers: “A magazine of clever fiction,” “A magazine of bright fiction,” “A magazine of entertaining fiction,” “A magazine of frisky fiction.” But with all the available supply of novel plot material exhausted by writers who had the good fortune of being here before our generation had an opportunity, what is left to us is neither clever, bright, nor entertaining. However, O. Henry proved that it was possible to take the same age-old material and brighten it up with a coat of sparkling cleverness. He had but to juggle his incidents in such a way as to make them follow one another in a most spectacular sequence. He had but to play upon the credulity of his reader. Like the stage magician, he said to his audience: “Observe that there is a tree here and a fountain there, and without moving a finger I shall reverse their positions. Now watch, presto! Here they are!” And the audience applauded, wondering how he did it, and crowned him king of the wizards.
The king of the wizards, then, occupies a most honorable position in our textbooks. Stories written in the vein...
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SOURCE: “O. Henry,” in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, University of London Press, 1924, pp. 185–96.
[In the following essay, Ward considers O. Henry's impact on the American short story and deems “The Gift of the Magi” the pinnacle of his literary achievement.]
Many English readers in the present generation received their first introduction to the American language in O. Henry's pages. The American short story had lapsed into obscurity, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, after Bret Harte had run his course; and inasmuch as Ambrose Bierce was known to only a few on this side of the Atlantic, it was not until after O. Henry had settled down to write short stories—in the early years of the twentieth century—that the American scene again appeared in the world's eye through this form of fiction. There had been Henry James, of course, great as a literary figure, yet enamoured of Europe rather than of America.
While Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce were writing, the United States was still using the English language for literary purposes; but when the works of O. Henry came eastward, with all the exuberance of a circus, there came the added attraction of a strange exoticism and a new and bewildering but very jolly and expressive tongue, which a glossary could only have helped to reduce to bald and respectable Kensington English. The character...
(The entire section is 2967 words.)
SOURCE: “Intercentury Humor,” in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968, pp. 162–284.
[In the following excerpt, Bier derides O. Henry's influence on the American short story as well as early American cinema, using “The Gift of the Magi” as an example.]
More and more the period became a time of accelerative mass entertainment. The serialized Sunday supplement stories of William S. Porter (“O. Henry” 1862–1910), were phenomenally successful. Kin Hubbard's popular rural comic philosopher, Abe Martin, with his whiskers and striped trousers in accompanying cartoon drawings, appeared regularly in the newspapers; he was a retrenchment of the American ideal, Downingesque and Lincolnian in his countrified wit and his very appearance as Uncle Sam. And on stage and later in the movies, the man with the lasso, Will Rogers, rose the whole distance in American iconography, reaching the pinnacle of comic idolatry in the late twenties and early thirties.
Fundamental sentimentalists, or vice versa, as they were, these men had nonetheless a touch of potent skepticism in their natures. Porter's technique of the abrupt surprise ending, coupled with a measure of realism, often brought him to the very ledge of sharp irony and nihilistic reversal. Indeed, his influence on early and abiding storylines in American movies needs study. Right through the thirties...
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SOURCE: “The Idea for O. Henry's ‘Gift of the Magi,’” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 311–14.
[In the following essay, Rea investigates possible sources for the story of “The Gift of the Magi.”]
There are two accounts, differing in significant details, of how O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi,”1 but neither indicates a source for the “gimmick” on which the story rests. Since we intend to suggest such a source, these accounts are worth examining. According to one version,2 Dan Smith sought out O. Henry, whose Christmas story he was to illustrate for the World. O. Henry, who had not yet even an idea for the story, told Smith to proceed with an illustration whose elements he suggested. The author would then fit his story to the picture, a story he later wrote while his friend Lindsey Denison lay on a sofa. In the other version it is William Wash Williams3 who lay on the couch while O. Henry, who had already given instructions for the illustration, wrote his story to meet a deadline only hours away. The first version surmises that Denison and his wife may have served as models for the couple of the story, although it has also been suggested that the model for the girl may involve memories of O. Henry's first wife Athol.4
Both versions cannot be true, since one claims that Denison was...
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SOURCE: “The Rise of the Journalistic Short Story: O. Henry and His Predecessors,” in The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 114–26.
[In the following excerpt, Voss offers an overview of O. Henry's short fiction and describes “The Gift of the Magi” as “a little parable with a significant meaning.”]
By the end of the nineteenth century the carefully made, ingeniously plotted story had become a well-established tradition, but it was during the first decade of the twentieth century that the type was carried to its ultimate lengths in the stories of O. Henry. None of his predecessors exploited the contrived story with quite such deliberate calculation or with more facility, and none achieved anything like the phenomenal popularity of O. Henry, who produced his stories for mass-circulation magazines and newspapers with the intent, as he put it, of pleasing “Mr. Everybody.”
O. Henry (1862–1910), whose real name was William Sydney Porter, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. In Texas, where he went in 1882 for reasons of health and to seek his fortune, he lived for a time on a ranch, was a bank teller in Austin, edited a short-lived humorous weekly called the Rolling Stone, and wrote a daily column, filled mostly with humorous anecdotes, for a Houston newspaper. Indicted for the alleged embezzlement of funds from the...
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SOURCE: A review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 85, No. 8, December 15, 1988, p. 710.
[In the following review, the critic praises a recent reprint of O. Henry's story.]
O. Henry's famous story of giving [“The Gift of the Magi”] describes the Christmas Eve of a young married couple at the turn of the century. Each gives up his chief treasure (Jim sells his watch, Della, her hair) to buy the other a present, which is unexpectedly useless (a watch fob for Jim, a set of combs for Della), but all the more beloved. To be published with a slipcase, this handsomely designed volume includes several full-page illustrations that, with their mannered depiction of character in a tone more quaint then sentimental, recall magazine illustrations of the period. However, the soft focus and muted colors of the artwork make an agreeable addition to the story. While the tale appears in countless anthologies, libraries wishing to present it in a separate volume will find this edition an attractive purchase.
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SOURCE: A review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 4, October 15, 1997, p. 397.
[In the following review, Rochman calls “The Gift of the Magi” one of the best Christmas stories of all time.]
The short story “The Gift of the Magi” is one of the greatest Christmas stories of all time, and it has been retold and illustrated for children many times, including a recent illustrated version with an Appalachian setting by Barry Moser. However, there are not many O. Henry stories that have the same power to reach young people today. Several of the 14 stories collected here are dated in subject and tone, and not too many readers will get to the end of the stories to enjoy the famous surprises. Part of the handsome Books of Wonder Classic gift series, which includes A Christmas Carol and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this collection will work best when read aloud across generations. Dooling's exquisite color plates, one for each story, in shades of brown and red, are both low-key and warm, with a realistic style that captures the wry characterization of O. Henry's prose.
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Browne, Kicki Moxon. “Young and Very Young.” Times Literary Supplement (25 February 1983): 185.
Recommends “The Gift of the Magi” for older children.
Review of The Gift of the Magi. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 36, no. 3 (November 1982): 48.
Mixed review of “The Gift of the Magi.”
Cooper, Ilene. Review of The Gift of the Magi. Booklist 91, no. 1 (1 September 1994): 41.
Claims that teenagers “should find the romantic appeal that has been apparent to previous generations of readers” of “The Gift of the Magi.”
Dircla, Michael. Review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories. Bookworld 27 (7 September 1997): 11.
Lauds the irony of “The Gift of the Magi.”
Gold, Julie Baum. Review of The Gift of the Magi. New York 21 (12 December 1988): 92.
Brief review of Simon and Shuster's reissued box version.
Review of The Gift of the Magi. Horn Book Guide 4, no. 2 (January-June 1993): 286.
Review of miniature picture-book format.
Review of The Gift of the Magi. Horn Book Guide 6, no. 1 (July-December 1994): 66–7.
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