illustration of two people, a woman and a man, looking at one another in profile with an ornate hair comb between them

The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry
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What is an example of situational irony in "The Gift of the Magi"?

Della sells her hair in order to buy Jim a Christmas present. When Jim sees that Della has cut her hair, he realizes how much money it must have cost her and he sells his watch to buy Della a gift. More irony is built into this story when the reader learns that Jim really did not want the watch fob, but bought it anyway because he thought it was something she wanted. By cutting her hair, Della has sacrificed the thing of greatest value to her—her beauty—to buy a gift for someone who does not love her as much as she loves him.

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The most important instance of situational irony involves Della. This is really her story. It is told entirely from her point of view. Her husband Jim only appears at the end. He is a relatively minor character. People will always remember "The Gift of the Magi" as a story about a young woman who sells her hair in order to raise enough money to buy her husband a Christmas present.

Situational irony involves something happening that is contrary to what is expected. Della expects her husband to be delighted with the watch fob she has chosen for him and for which she has made the great sacrifice of all her beautiful long hair. It turns out that Jim no longer has the watch. He sold it to buy Della a Christmas present of tortoise-shell combs for her hair.

Irony is usually like a cruel joke. It would be funny if it were not so painful. We do not feel like laughing at either of these two young people, but the irony is partially ameliorated by the fact that they love each other. Their love is more important than any material possessions.

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