Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
O. Henry’s humor and imagination conquer any journalistic tendencies he may have transferred to fiction. His penchant for dramatic irony, a trademark in many of his short stories, gives his style its distinctive flavor. Gentle and ingenious, his writing is pervaded by that eminently salable quality known as “human interest.” This quality is best exemplified in his quest for sincerity: his desire to write about real people in real situations.
Della and Jim are not the products of an overly sentimental imagination. The author strives to create circumstances as well as physical surroundings that ring true to life. Both the protagonists accept life as they find it without giving in to the negative emotions of hopelessness or despair. Della’s only moment of doubt still revolves around her husband’s well-being, when she seeks divine intervention so that she may remain pretty in Jim’s eyes. Jim covers his fear of Della’s disappointment with an almost affected nonchalance when he requests that they merely put their Christmas gifts away and keep them for an unspecified future. Only then does he reveal that he has sacrificed his treasure to secure Della’s desire. His certainty that they will both use these items in the future provides the unspoken thought that life is bound to improve for them.
The protagonists do not react to each other out of saintliness, duty, or love of self-imposed sacrifice: They simply embody the twin spirits of love and Christmas. For the less-than-devout O. Henry, these essences are one and the same. The author suggests that sentiment does not have to be sacrificed to the cause of realism.
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New York City
*New York City. Crowded city in which the Youngs rent for eight dollars per month a second-story flat. It is furnished, but with obviously second-hand and outdated furniture. O. Henry skillfully evokes the shabbiness of the rented rooms and the building that contains them, calling attention to such details as the nonfunctional mailslot in the lobby and the broken doorbell. Within the flat itself, he points out the worn carpet and couch and the almost useless piece of mirror that Della has for making herself up.
It is essential that the narrator explain the poor circumstances in which the loving couple do live. The lack of any elegance or pride in their immediate surroundings must be emphasized so readers understand why it is so vital that each character present the other with a wonderful Christmas gift. Surroundings so dismal make both Jim and Della yearn for any possession of substantial beauty and worth as a gift. However, what each sacrifices to please the other makes the other’s gift useless.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). New York: Twayne, 1965. Includes a biography of O. Henry and a critical analysis of his work’s structure and its technical characteristics. Analyzes his popularity and the subsequent decline of his reputation. Discusses his influence on the development of the American short story.
Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957. Analyzes the work as well as the life of the writer. Asserts that O. Henry’s rightful place in American literature is that of a minor but classic writer.
(The entire section is 261 words.)