The Gift of the Magi Style, Form, and Literary Elements
by O. Henry

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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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.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

O. Henry often chose to translate tragedy or misfortune into an emphasized regard and tenderness for the unlucky or the underdog. He never cared for the so-called higher classes but preferred to cull his characters, and his sympathies, from watching ordinary people on the streets and in the shops and cafés. This perspective on the world around him is highly visible in “The Gift of the Magi,” where, to enforce his quasi-religious message, he counterpoints the elements of love and caring with those of poverty and sacrifice.

The extreme devotion manifested on the part of the young married couple becomes almost incongruous when contrasted against the dreariness and bleakness of their material surroundings. Each arrives at the conclusion that it is impossible to live through Christmas without granting the other’s supreme wish. It is not “selfish magnanimity”—a desire to revel in the sacrifice of giving—that motivates them. They truly embrace the noble sentiment of selflessness.

Thus, despite the specter of poverty, the story is animated by an unexpressed hope for the future. (This is a variation on the old theme that love conquers all, particularly material setbacks.) By setting the story at Christmastime, the author suggests that simple, unselfish human love is the basis of such hope for humankind.

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...

(The entire section is 1,540 words.)