What examples of figurative language are in the story "The Gift of the Magi?"

There are a number of examples of figurative language in “The Gift of the Magi.” One such example comes in the simile that Henry uses to describe Della's beautiful hair. He says that it ripples and shines “like a cascade of brown waters.”

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Figurative language is a general term which covers the use of metaphor, simile, and other literary techniques that help the reader to picture the events and mood of a story better through the use of imagery. In O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi," there are several instances of figurative language being used to good effect.

For example, early in the story, O. Henry makes it clear that Della's hair is her pride and joy. He explains this by presenting the image of Della, in some fictional world, living in a flat opposite the Queen of Sheba. The Queen of Sheba is an allusion to a figure known as a by-word for extreme wealth, elegance, and luxury. The image of Della, then, hypothetically letting her hair hang out of the window to dry draws a direct comparison between this hair and the "jewels and gifts" of the Queen. It is an image which enables the reader to recognize the true value and beauty of Della's hair, which is worth more to her than the jewels are worth to the Queen.

O. Henry continues to make this point by describing Della's hair as "rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters." This is a simile, which is then compounded by the description of the hair appearing almost as "a garment" to Della. This gives the impression that Della's hair is not only beautiful, but valued because it is part of her daily attire.

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As with all good writers, O. Henry uses figurative language to make his stories more interesting and engaging. A story written purely in literal language, the language of the ordinary and the everyday, would soon get rather tedious, and the reader would lose interest very quickly. To hold the reader's attention, it's necessary to employ figurative language, which of its nature goes beyond the merely literal.

A prime example of figurative language is the simile, which is the comparison of two different things using the words “like” or “as.” In “The Gift of the Magi,” a lovely example of simile can be seen in Henry's description of Della's beautiful hair as “rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.” Most people would agree that this is a lot more interesting than simply saying “Della's hair was beautiful.”

Another example of figurative language in the story comes when Henry describes Jim's stunned reaction to Della's short hair. Della has sold some of her luscious locks to buy a watch-chain for her husband. When Jim gets home and sees that Della's hair is now short, he stops inside the door “as immovable as a setter at the sight of a quail.” This is another delightful simile that makes the narrative much more interesting and engaging.

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An excellent example of O. Henry's figurative language in "The Gift of the Magi" can be found in the paragraph in which the author describes Della's pride in her beautiful hair and Jim's pride in his pocket watch.

Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

This is wild exaggeration, of course, but O. Henry often uses exaggeration for humor and other effects. Imagine bringing the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon into that humble neighborhood! Imagine making King Solomon the janitor in their own building!

Here is a more conventional simile:

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.

Here is an example of a metaphor, which O. Henry describes as a "hashed metaphor."

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

It is a hashed metaphor, or what grammarians would call a mixed metaphor because the hours could fly on rosy wings but would trip by on nimble feet.

Here is an simile which conveys both Della's feelings and an impression of how she looks after sacrificing her hair to buy her husband a platinum watch fob.

“If Jim doesn't kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl.

We don't know what Coney Island chorus girls' hair looked like, but we can imagine. They must have been among the first American women to start cutting their hair short. In the 1920s it would become the fashion and would be commemorated by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." 

Finally, O. Henry uses extreme metaphorical language when he calls Della and Jim the magi, that is the three biblical kings who brought rich gifts to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.

 But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

"The Gift of the Magi" is O. Henry's best known, best loved story. This is largely because of the kindly, affectionate hyperbole in his figurative language. He makes these poor people seem rich and even distinguished because of their touching love for each other. Della is rich in having such a husband, and Jim is rich in having such a wife. 

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