O. Henry O. Henry Short Fiction Analysis

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O. Henry Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

O. Henry’s widely varied background provided not only plots for his tales but also characters drawn from all walks of life. Ham in “The Hiding of Black Chief,” Caesar in “A Municipal Report,” and Lizzie in “The Guilty Party” are only isolated examples of O. Henry’s proficiency in creating a vivid sense of the texture of language for the reader by reproducing native dialect, be it Western, southern, or even “New Yorkese.” This linguistic sensitivity contributes to O. Henry’s versatility as a local colorist, as does his literary self-education. Echoes of Charles Dickens appear in “Elsie in New York,” allusions to Greek and Roman mythology in “Hygeia at the Solito” and “The Reformation of Calliope,” and parodic references to Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of Shamrock Jolnes.”

O. Henry’s popularity stems not only from his depiction of commonplace events and human responses but also from the surprise endings of his “well-made” plots. Talented as an ironist, he both comments upon and sympathizes with the ranch hands, bank clerks, and shop girls whose sorrows and foibles he re-creates. While much of his humor redounds from his likely use of puns and literary allusions, much might be called the humor of recognition—the rueful grin that occurs when a reader sees his or her own petty flaws mirrored in a character and predicts the inevitable downfall. The downfall, however, is often given the comic turn which made O. Henry famous. Kid Brady in “Vanity and Some Sables,” for example, would rather go to jail for the theft of furs than tell his girlfriend that her “Russian sables” cost $21.50 in a bargain basement; Maida, the shop girl in “The Purple Dress” who “starves eight months to bring a purple dress and a holiday together,” gives up her carefully garnered money to save a spendthrift friend from eviction. Molly sacrifices her furs—and her vanity—to prove Kid’s honesty, and Maida is outdone by her tailor in generosity so that she gets both her dress and the marriageable head clerk: These are the twist endings that turn minor personal tragedies into comic triumphs.

The Gift of the Magi

Possibly one of the most anthologized of O. Henry’s stories is “The Gift of the Magi,” a tale about the redeeming power of love. The protagonists, a couple named James and Della Young, struggle to live on a small salary. By Christmas Eve, Della’s thrift has gained her only $1.87 for her husband’s gift, which she had hoped would be “something fine and rare and sterling.” She decides to sell one of the family “treasures”—her long, beautiful chestnut hair—to buy a platinum chain for her husband’s prized possession, his watch. The first reversal is that he has bought her a set of pure tortoiseshell combs with which to adorn her long hair; the second, that he has sold his watch to do so.

In this story about the true spirit of gift-giving, both the family treasures and the protagonists take on Old Testamentary significance. Della’s hair, the reader is told, puts the Queen of Sheba’s wealth to shame; Jim’s watch rivals all of Solomon’s gold. Both unselfishly sacrifice their most precious possession for the other, thereby ushering in a new dispensation on Christmas Eve. Even more, these “two foolish children” acquire allegorical value in their act of giving insofar as they replicate the giving of the three wise men: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest,” O. Henry tells us: “They are the magi.” In O. Henry’s version, then, the “Gift of the Magi” turns out not to be gold, frankincense, or myrrh, not even hair-combs or a watch chain, but rather selfless love.

“Past One at Rooney’s”

This love is what O. Henry posits as a cure for such social ills as the inevitable gang fights and prostitution he portrays in his New York stories. In “Past One at Rooney’s,” a tale introduced as a modern retelling of William...

(The entire section is 1,755 words.)