(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 production astonished every one, he could scarcely produce stories rapidly enough. The secrets of his great success lay in a wide observation of men, women and books; freedom from all literary conventions; humor and sympathy, and real genius in the story-telling art.

The years before O. Henry became successful were really aids to success, for he was unconsciously gathering material from which to draw lavishly in his last few years of work. In actual life he was William Sidney Porter: “O. Henry” is a pseudonyn chosen because he was attracted by the name “Henry” seen in a New Orleans newspaper, and he thought the letter “O” easy to write. O. Henry was born in Green[s]boro, North Carolina, in 1862, but he lived as citizen of a wide world, seeing life in Central America and Texas, thru the great West, and in every...

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N. Bryllion Fagin (essay date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “O. Henryism,” in Short Story-Writing: An Art or a Trade?, Thomas Seltzer, Inc., 1923, pp. 29–47.

[In the following essay, Fagin provides an overview of O. Henry's short stories and praises the ingenuity of “The Gift of the Magi.”]

The mottoes of most of our fiction periodicals are told on their covers: “A magazine of clever fiction,” “A magazine of bright fiction,” “A magazine of entertaining fiction,” “A magazine of frisky fiction.” But with all the available supply of novel plot material exhausted by writers who had the good fortune of being here before our generation had an opportunity, what is left to us is neither clever, bright, nor entertaining. However, O. Henry proved that it was possible to take the same age-old material and brighten it up with a coat of sparkling cleverness. He had but to juggle his incidents in such a way as to make them follow one another in a most spectacular sequence. He had but to play upon the credulity of his reader. Like the stage magician, he said to his audience: “Observe that there is a tree here and a fountain there, and without moving a finger I shall reverse their positions. Now watch, presto! Here they are!” And the audience applauded, wondering how he did it, and crowned him king of the wizards.

The king of the wizards, then, occupies a most honorable position in our textbooks. Stories written in the vein of O. Henry sell more readily than stories written in the vein of any other master. There is a brightness, a snappiness, a cheerfulness of style about them that draws the artistic sensibilities of editors. And yet our insistence upon the emulation of O. Henry has not produced many other O. Henrys. Perhaps it is because O. Henry went to the highways and byways of North and Central America for his plot material which he then juggled to his heart's content, while our students go to O. Henry for their plot material. Perhaps also it is because O. Henryism was as much a part of William Sidney Porter as was his speaking voice which is buried with him.

A very young student once lodged a complaint against her own unruly self. “It is absolutely impossible for me to write a single sentence in the O. Henry way,” she said. “My stuff somehow doesn't have that swing—it's dead. I don't believe I shall ever learn. I am too sad of disposition, I suppose.”

That was one time I did not smile. “Why should you want to write like O. Henry?” I asked. “Why don't you try to wear the shape of shoes or the color of clothes he wore, or drink the kind of ginger-ale he preferred?” But I was sorry later for my unguarded outburst, for I realize that that was not the way to make story writers, not the kind that sell, at any rate.

After all, O. Henry's technique consisted mainly of a series of clever tricks, and tricks can be taught, even though not perhaps his dexterity in performing them. His was truly a gift of the Magi and not really a gift of the gods. Admitting that through his superficial cleverness there occasionally glimmers an uncommon understanding of and a sympathy for the people whose destinies he juggles, the fact remains that his example is that of clever execution rather than artistic conception. It remains needless, then, for us to point to anything else in his makeup save his successful technique. We read a dozen of his stories, call attention to their brilliant mannerisms and surprising twists at the end, and exhort our students to go and do likewise. Sometimes we go a little further and discuss the underlying psychology upon which O. Henry based his loops and twists—his belief that our modern reader was so well-nourished on stereotyped fiction as to guess the conclusion of a story by its beginning, and, consequently, O. Henry led him on to believe that his guess was being borne out until the very end, when a pleasantly startling disappointment was sprung upon him.

To substantiate our eulogies of the wizard and to impress upon the would-be writer the importance of studying and emulating O. Henry, we quote copiously from Stephen Leacock, Prof. C. Alphonso Smith, and numerous other O. Henry friends. We seldom, if ever, quote opinions of critics and editors who are hostile to O. Henry and his cult. Here is one editor, for instance, who actually believes that “the effects of such mannerism, trickery, shallowness, and artifice as distinguished O. Henry's work, are baleful on all literary students who do not despise them.”1 We know that this editor's opinion must not be credited with importance. His is only a small Greenwich Village publication. The checks that writers receive come from editors who do like O. Henry's ways; in fact, prefer O. Henryesque stories almost to the exclusion of any other type. Hence we examine the work of our students with a feeling of satisfaction. By far the greater number have imbibed our teachings. Their work shows a striving after cleverness, witty flippancy, grotesque slang, and an attempt to cap the dénouement with a novel twist, a perfectly surprising turn. Thus we know that our work is not in vain; at least some of our students are on the way to success.

Again, this is not a plea on behalf of those incompetents who are not O. Henryesquely gifted and are therefore not on the way to success. It is merely a dispassionate consideration of the profession of teaching story-writing and its existing standards and ethics. Since the O. Henry story is held up as the supreme model, it is only fair to inquire into the results thus produced. We have been so eloquent with pride on the progress of our short story. Since Professor Brander Matthews first expounded its philosophy, away back in 1884, and connected the two little words by a hyphen to distinguish this form beginning with an Initial Impulse and running up to a Climax and falling down to a Dénouement from the story which is merely short, it has become our prevailing form of literature. The quantity turned out annually is beyond the dreams of such a pioneer as Poe. But the quality—ah, that is another story!

What proportion of this wholesale output can be candidly, suppressing for the moment our desire to experience flattering sensations, added to our national literary treasury? How many memorable stories come to mind to waylay us with their poignant spell of subtlety and beauty—such, let us say, as Kipling's “Without Benefit of Clergy,” or Chekhov's “Ward No. 6,” or Maupassant's “In the Moonlight”? Few, isn't it? And peculiar, is it not, that though we have been heaping the warmest of praise upon Richard Harding Davis and Clarence Budington Kelland and George Randolph Chester and Richard Washburn Child and Mary Roberts Rinehart and a score or more of our other popular writers, the few memorable stories that do come to mind were not written by these favorites. How much of the O. Henryesque is to be found in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's “Revolt of Mother,” or in Theodore Dreiser's “The Lost Phoebe,”2 or, to take a more recent example, in Anzia Yezierska's “Hungry Hearts”?3 These stories are everything that the wizard's stories are not. They are neither breezy, nor flippant, nor surprising; nor “refreshing.” Judged by our standards they are anomalies.

I am sufficiently steeped in our inspirational literature to be aware of the dangers of pessimism. The Doctors Crane and Orison Swett Marden and Walt Mason have left their effect upon my disposition. But it is only logical to deduct that if all the O. Henry standards that we have so triumphantly established and extolled for the guidance of our story writers have failed to produce a single great story to compare with the best that other countries which do not preach and practice O. Henryism have produced, there is something wrong with our standards. These are unusual times we are living in. Everything that has seemed to us wise and sound and sublime is coming in for a share of skepticism and revaluation. Unquestionable things are being questioned. Is it not a propitious time to attempt a revaluation of our short-story dogmas? What is the contribution of O. Henryism to our national letters and to the short story as a form of literary expression? How great an artist really was William Sidney Porter, the founder of the Cult? Is it sacrilege to attempt to answer these questions?

O. Henry left us more than two hundred and fifty stories. In the decade before his death he turned out an average of twenty-five stories a year. Mr. William Johnston, an editor of the New York World relates4 the struggles of O. Henry in trying to live up to a three-year contract he had with that paper calling for a story a week. There were weeks when O. Henry would haunt the hotels and cafés of New York in a frantic search of material, and there were times when the stories could not be produced on time and O. Henry would sit down and write the most ingenious excuses. Needless to state that O. Henry's stories bear all the marks of this haste and anxiety. Nearly all of them are sketchy, reportorial, superficial, his gift of felicitous expression “camouflaging” the poverty of theme and character. The best of them lack depth and roundness, often disclosing a glint of a sharp idea unworked, untransmuted by thought and emotion.

Of his many volumes of stories, The Four Million is without doubt the one which is most widely known. It was his bold challenge to the world that he was the discoverer—even though he gave the census taker due credit—of four million people instead of four hundred in America's metropolis that first attracted attention and admiration. The implication was that he was imbued with the purpose of unbaring the lives of these four million and especially of the neglected lower classes. A truly admirable and ambitious self-assignment. And so we have The Four Million. But to what extent was he successful in carrying out his assignment. How much of the surging, shifting, pale, rich, orderly, chaotic, and wholly incongruous life of New York is actually pulsating in the twenty-five little stories collected in the volume?

What is the first one, “Tobin's Palm,” if not a mere long-drawn-out jest? Is it anything more than an anecdote exploiting palmistry as a “trait”—to use another technical term—or point? It isn't New York, nor Tobin, nor any other character, that makes this story interesting. It is O. Henry's trick at the end. The prophecy is fulfilled, after all, in such an unexpected way, and we are such satisfied children!

What is the second story, the famous “Gift of the Magi”? We have discussed it and analyzed it in our texts and lauded it everywhere. How much of the life of the four million does it hold up to us? It is better than the first story; yes, much better. But why is it a masterpiece? Not because it tries to take us into the home of a married couple attempting to exist in our largest city on the husband's income...

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Alfred C. Ward (essay date 1924)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “O. Henry,” in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, University of London Press, 1924, pp. 185–96.

[In the following essay, Ward considers O. Henry's impact on the American short story and deems “The Gift of the Magi” the pinnacle of his literary achievement.]

Many English readers in the present generation received their first introduction to the American language in O. Henry's pages. The American short story had lapsed into obscurity, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, after Bret Harte had run his course; and inasmuch as Ambrose Bierce was known to only a few on this side of the Atlantic, it was not until after O. Henry...

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Jesse Bier (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Intercentury Humor,” in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968, pp. 162–284.

[In the following excerpt, Bier derides O. Henry's influence on the American short story as well as early American cinema, using “The Gift of the Magi” as an example.]

More and more the period became a time of accelerative mass entertainment. The serialized Sunday supplement stories of William S. Porter (“O. Henry” 1862–1910), were phenomenally successful. Kin Hubbard's popular rural comic philosopher, Abe Martin, with his whiskers and striped trousers in accompanying cartoon drawings, appeared regularly in the newspapers; he was a...

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John A. Rea (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Idea for O. Henry's ‘Gift of the Magi,’” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 311–14.

[In the following essay, Rea investigates possible sources for the story of “The Gift of the Magi.”]

There are two accounts, differing in significant details, of how O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi,”1 but neither indicates a source for the “gimmick” on which the story rests. Since we intend to suggest such a source, these accounts are worth examining. According to one version,2 Dan Smith sought out O. Henry, whose Christmas story he was to illustrate for the World. O. Henry, who had not yet...

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Arthur Voss (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Rise of the Journalistic Short Story: O. Henry and His Predecessors,” in The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 114–26.

[In the following excerpt, Voss offers an overview of O. Henry's short fiction and describes “The Gift of the Magi” as “a little parable with a significant meaning.”]

By the end of the nineteenth century the carefully made, ingeniously plotted story had become a well-established tradition, but it was during the first decade of the twentieth century that the type was carried to its ultimate lengths in the stories of O. Henry. None of his predecessors exploited the contrived story...

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Booklist (review date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 85, No. 8, December 15, 1988, p. 710.

[In the following review, the critic praises a recent reprint of O. Henry's story.]

O. Henry's famous story of giving [“The Gift of the Magi”] describes the Christmas Eve of a young married couple at the turn of the century. Each gives up his chief treasure (Jim sells his watch, Della, her hair) to buy the other a present, which is unexpectedly useless (a watch fob for Jim, a set of combs for Della), but all the more beloved. To be published with a slipcase, this handsomely designed volume includes several full-page illustrations that, with...

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Hazel Rochman (review date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 4, October 15, 1997, p. 397.

[In the following review, Rochman calls “The Gift of the Magi” one of the best Christmas stories of all time.]

The short story “The Gift of the Magi” is one of the greatest Christmas stories of all time, and it has been retold and illustrated for children many times, including a recent illustrated version with an Appalachian setting by Barry Moser. However, there are not many O. Henry stories that have the same power to reach young people today. Several of the 14 stories collected here are dated in subject and tone, and not too many readers...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Browne, Kicki Moxon. “Young and Very Young.” Times Literary Supplement (25 February 1983): 185.

Recommends “The Gift of the Magi” for older children.

Review of The Gift of the Magi. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 36, no. 3 (November 1982): 48.

Mixed review of “The Gift of the Magi.”

Cooper, Ilene. Review of The Gift of the Magi. Booklist 91, no. 1 (1 September 1994): 41.

Claims that teenagers “should find the romantic appeal that has been apparent to previous generations of readers” of “The Gift of the...

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