The Gift of the Magi Analysis
by O. Henry

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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 It is furnished, but with obviously second-hand and outdated furniture.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 City and that the story occurs around the time he wrote it—in the early 1900s. Details from the story, such as the clothes the characters wear, the physical descriptions of the apartment and of the city, and the language in the story (both the slang used by the characters and the vocabulary of the narrator) help support this assumption. For instance, the Youngs' flat has an electric buzzer (even though it is broken), but Della must use the gas to heat her curling irons, showing that the story takes place before electricity was as widely used as it is today. Wigs are made with real human hair, and watches are commonly carried in a pocket rather than worn on the wrist.

When this story was first published, in 1906, the roles of American men and women were fairly clearly defined. Jim and Della show several signs of meeting conventional expectations: he works outside the home, while she shops and cooks and takes care of the household; he is emotionally secure, comforting her during her crying spells. Women did not yet have the right to vote, although the suffrage movement had begun.

In the United States, an economic crisis was building, made worse by the tremendous amount of...

(The entire section is 2,315 words.)