illustration of two people, a woman and a man, looking at one another in profile with an ornate hair comb between them

The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry

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Style and Technique

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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

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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

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*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.

Literary Style

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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 poor young couple who buy each other special Christmas gifts, which ironically cancel each other out because Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, which he in turn has sold to buy her a fine set of combs for her hair. Despite the fact that these gifts are now useless, Jim and Della have given each other the greatest gift of all, which the narrator compares to the gifts given to the Christ child by the wise men, or magi: selfless love.

O. Henry employs several techniques, or literary devices, in "The Gift of the Magi" that are typical of most of his short stories. The first of these is a narrator with personality and presence. Although the story focuses on Della's point of view—the reader sees primarily what Della sees—the story is told in another narrative voice that directly addresses the reader as ''you." It is almost as if the narrator is an additional character that is heard, but never seen, engaging the reader as a friend and sharing his insights into the Youngs' situation. The narrator tells the story in a joking, neighborly way, with several funny asides directed at the reader. He uses casual expressions such as "took a mighty pride'' and interrupts his tale with humorous phrases like "forget the hashed metaphor." Another writer who often uses this technique, sometimes called authorial intrusion, is Charles Dickens.

Setting

Although "The Gift of the Magi" is a famous story, O. Henry is mainly known for the type of story he wrote, rather than for individual pieces. All of the stories follow certain patterns of character, plot, structure, and setting. The settings of O. Henry's stories are often grouped into five categories: the American South, the West, Central America, prison, and New York.

"The Gift of the Magi" is a New York story. Although almost half of his stonries are set in New York, O. Henry establishes the particular settings of each story with great attention to detail. In "The Gift of the Magi," the writer uses details of the setting to show that Jim and Della are poor. As soon as the story opens, he describes "the shabby little couch," the dismal view ("she ... looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard"), "the letter box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring." The writer's careful rendering of setting—and mood—help the reader understand just how big are the sacrifices Della and Jim are making when they sell their most prized possessions. The details of place also help make the story seem realistic on one level, although on another level it becomes an allegory.

Structure

"The Gift of the Magi'' is also a good example of the kind of story structure, or organization, for which O. Henry became famous. One of the most widely recognized elements of his fiction is the surprise ending; in fact, many critics refer to the sudden, unexpected turn of events at the very end of a story as "the O. Henry twist."

O. Henry was an economical writer. As in this story, he often began by introducing a character and giving telling details about setting that hint at plot. The first paragraph, primarily made up of short phrases and sentence fragments, introduces Della and her money problem. Using very little space, O. Henry gives readers an accurate sense of her character, her predicament, and her surroundings. He outlines her decision and its aftermath in a tightly constructed plot, moving quickly from introduction to action and on to the surprise ending.

Allusion

Another element of "The Gift of the Magi" is allusion, or references to well-known people, places, events, or artistic works. When the narrator in this story describes Della's hair and Jim's watch, he alludes to the Bible: ''Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy."

O. Henry's use of allusion here accomplishes three things. First, it is funny. The thought of the Queen of Sheba living in the apartment across the airshaft from Della and Jim Young, and the thought of King Solomon as a janitor—these are silly images, designed not just to make readers laugh but also, perhaps, to remind them that Della and Jim do not take their circumstances too seriously. Second, by comparing Della's hair and Jim's watch to royal treasures, O. Henry lets his readers know how special these items are. Finally, this lighthearted allusion to the Bible prepares the way for the more serious allusion which appears at the end of the story, when Della and Jim are compared to the Magi.

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