The Gift of the Magi The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry
by O. Henry

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(Short Story Criticism)

“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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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

Options 1909

Roads of Destiny 1909

Let Me Feel Your Pulse 1910

Strictly Business 1910

The Two Women 1910

Whirligigs 1910

Sixes and Sevens 1911

Rolling Stones 1912

Waifs and Strays 1917

Frederick Houk Law (essay date 1917)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13,644 words.)