When, in 1919, the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories was inaugurated, the work of O. Henry was the standard by which other short stories were evaluated. In the space of about a decade, William Sidney Porter, writing under the pseudonym O. Henry, produced almost three hundred short stories. Wildly popular, his stories were both commercially successful and critically acclaimed from 1908 until 1930. Sadly, O. Henry’s death in 1910 prevented him from enjoying the fruits of his labor and its attendant praise. Mercifully, perhaps, it also prevented him from witnessing the critical crucifixion his work endured from 1930 until around 1960.
O. Henry’s stories were noted for their thoroughly American spirit. His stories were always sympathetic to the underdog, and his characters, rooted in the grind of making a living, managed to transcend their humdrum existence by dint of love, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. A smart-alecky, brash humor, which is also typically American, also fills his stories.
O. Henry’s stories were once lauded as the highest form of short story, but his mechanized plot structure was considered contrived after 1930. Fraught with sentimentality, the stories rely heavily on the use of irony in their paradoxically predictable surprise endings. While there may have been a strong commercial and critical appetite for this work in pre-Depression America, after 1930 the critics’ taste for it soured. A new era in literature was emerging; it was an era that had no use for the previous generation’s moralism. Critically acclaimed short stories now embrace subtlety, indirectness, and the symbolic. Next to them, O. Henry’s stories’ overstatement, predictable plots, and clear moral messages are deemed shallow and nonintellectual.
“The Gift of the Magi” has endured as one of O. Henry’s best-known stories. A tribute to the transcendent power of sacrificial love, the story extols the foolish impulsiveness of the two lovers as being rooted in a deeper wisdom, sacrificial giving.
Della and Jim are typical O. Henry characters; they are hard-working and poor, and their existence is full of struggle. They manage to transcend it, however, and they experience joy through the power of their love for one another. When the lovers, unbeknown to each other, sell the possessions most dear to their hearts because they hope to make each other happy, they unwittingly undercut the effectiveness of their gifts. Beyond the minor tragedy of the situation, however, is the larger gift underlying it. The joy and sustaining power of self-sacrificial love is the greatest gift of all, and that, ultimately, is the gift these two share.