Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

O. Henry’s humor and imagination conquer any journalistic tendencies he may have transferred to fiction. His penchant for dramatic irony, a trademark in many of his short stories, gives his style its distinctive flavor. Gentle and ingenious, his writing is pervaded by that eminently salable quality known as “human interest.” This quality is best exemplified in his quest for sincerity: his desire to write about real people in real situations.

Della and Jim are not the products of an overly sentimental imagination. The author strives to create circumstances as well as physical surroundings that ring true to life. Both the protagonists accept life as they find it without giving in to the negative emotions of hopelessness or despair. Della’s only moment of doubt still revolves around her husband’s well-being, when she seeks divine intervention so that she may remain pretty in Jim’s eyes. Jim covers his fear of Della’s disappointment with an almost affected nonchalance when he requests that they merely put their Christmas gifts away and keep them for an unspecified future. Only then does he reveal that he has sacrificed his treasure to secure Della’s desire. His certainty that they will both use these items in the future provides the unspoken thought that life is bound to improve for them.

The protagonists do not react to each other out of saintliness, duty, or love of self-imposed sacrifice: They simply embody the twin spirits of love and Christmas. For the less-than-devout O. Henry, these essences are one and the same. The author suggests that sentiment does not have to be sacrificed to the cause of realism.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. Crowded city in which the Youngs rent for eight dollars per month a second-story flat. It is furnished, but with obviously second-hand and outdated furniture. O. Henry skillfully evokes the shabbiness of the rented rooms and the building that contains them, calling attention to such details as the nonfunctional mailslot in the lobby and the broken doorbell. Within the flat itself, he points out the worn carpet and couch and the almost useless piece of mirror that Della has for making herself up.

It is essential that the narrator explain the poor circumstances in which the loving couple do live. The lack of any elegance or pride in their immediate surroundings must be emphasized so readers understand why it is so vital that each character present the other with a wonderful Christmas gift. Surroundings so dismal make both Jim and Della yearn for any possession of substantial beauty and worth as a gift. However, what each sacrifices to please the other makes the other’s gift useless.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

O. Henry does not specify where or when "The Gift of the Magi" takes place. The reader may assume that "the city" he refers to is New York...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
In "The Gift of the Magi," O. Henry uses a folksy narrator to tell the story of Jim and Della Young, a...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

Early 1900s: In most married couples, the husband works and the wife stays home. Only one-third of the workforce is women.


(The entire section is 81 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Compare the typical living and working conditions in New York in the early 1900s with today. What does a "normal" working person make per...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

''The Gift of the Magi'' was adapted for film as a 21-minute segment of O. Henry's Full House, produced by Andre Hakim, starring Jeanne Crain...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Whirligigs, a collection of O. Henry's short stories published in 1910, features the popular story "The Ransom of Red Chief," about...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Further Reading
Bates, H. E., The Modem Short Story, Writer, Inc., 1941, p. 231.
Bates surveys the development of...

(The entire section is 182 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). New York: Twayne, 1965. Includes a biography of O. Henry and a critical analysis of his work’s structure and its technical characteristics. Analyzes his popularity and the subsequent decline of his reputation. Discusses his influence on the development of the American short story.

Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957. Analyzes the work as well as the life of the writer. Asserts that O. Henry’s rightful place in American literature is that of a minor but classic writer.

Long, E. Hudson. O. Henry: The Man and His Work. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949. This biography makes a case for O. Henry as a “humorist, craftsman, and social historian.” Long claims that O. Henry is properly understood and appreciated in the context of the times in which he lived and the audience for which he wrote.

O’Connor Richard. O. Henry: The Legendary Life of William Porter. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970. Traces the life of O. Henry from his boyhood in North Carolina through his Texas and Ohio prison years, and, finally, to New York. Vividly portrays the early twentieth century New York City evoked in his work.

Smith, C. Alphonso. O. Henry. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1980. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Page, 1916. A biography and analysis of O. Henry’s work written by a professor who knew O. Henry. Most interesting because, having been written in 1916, during the height of his popularity, it reveals a great deal about late Victorian culture and literary tastes.