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The Gift of the Magi | Context



Some biographers and literary critics characterize O. Henry as a writer of realism. A literary and artistic movement that flourished during the mid-19th century, realism rejected idealized representations of life, instead presenting characters and situations in lifelike and starkly accurate ways. Writers typically wrote about characters who were ordinary, everyday people. Realist fictional settings were familiar and recognizable, characters and their actions were believable, and plots and style were unembellished. Writers strove to present life as it is, often emphasizing its dreary, unattractive aspects.

In a recording held at the Greensboro Historical Museum, O. Henry described his stories as incorporating "characters and thoughts that are lifelike" and based on his own experiences. He justified his use of surprise endings with the adage "truth is stranger than fiction." He wrote about the people who made up the masses—common folks such as shop girls, waiters, hobos, beggars, hotel employees, and chorus girls—and set his stories in mundane locations, such as restaurants and all-night diners, parks, city streets, stores, and drab apartments and hotel rooms. O. Henry's stories drew inspiration from ordinary events like random discussions, everyday conversations between domestic partners, or walks in a big city.

Despite his realist tendencies, however, some critics note that O. Henry's stories are usually sentimental. He idealized real life, portraying it as he would like it to be, not as it actually was. Although many of his stories, including "The Gift of the Magi," appear credible and realistic, they are anecdotal, presenting a highly romanticized slice of life rather than offering a more fully developed narrative chronicling the ups and downs of real life. The dialogue also may not reflect the way actual people talk, frequently switching between formal diction and city slang.

O. Henry and the Short Story Genre

Growth in newspaper and magazine publishing in the 1890s made stories accessible to readers and boosted the popularity of the short story genre. In the 1880s high-brow literature was the norm, and popular literature, or fiction written for the masses, was considered inferior. This distinction changed with the invention of photo engraving and the development of so-called yellow journalism, or reporting that is based on sensational topics and exaggeration. Photo engraving made possible the use of pictures with text. Yellow journalism shifted the focus from straightforward news to sensational news—and selling newspapers. In an effort to profit from lucrative advertising dollars, many publishers started publishing magazine supplements to their Sunday papers. They filled these supplements with short stories by respected authors. Entire novels would appear in serial format over several months. For example, English novelist Charles Dickens published Great Expectations in a weekly periodical over nine months in 1860–61. The works of O. Henry can be seen as part of this development.

The rise of magazines and newspapers also changed the reading audience. Publishers no longer wanted to appeal to a narrow segment of the public; instead they wanted the widest audience possible. In order to achieve that, they made their publications affordable and regularly included stories the general public could understand and appreciate. Yet in order to compete with each other, publishers sought out quality writers.

In the early 1900s the New York World, a New York penny newspaper, entered this highly competitive field and employed O. Henry as a reporter-at-large, tasking him with writing one one-page story per week for its Sunday edition. O. Henry flourished as a writer in New York, embracing the city and incorporating it as the setting of many of his stories. He wrote about the common people, new arrivals to New York, and people living in furnished flats and working at unremarkable, unnoticed jobs. He believed New York was a magical place where anything could happen, and he wanted to convey this romanticized view of the city to his readers.

Although he was not the first short story writer of the early 1900s, O. Henry became one of the most popular. He was highly prolific, composing about 600 short stories during his lifetime. In addition he helped to popularize the short story genre. His formula, or the structure of his stories, was adopted by other writers and often taught in writing seminars and colleges. His stories appealed to the masses: they were simply written, but their surprise endings and unusual phrasing elevated them and appealed to readers' intellectual curiosities. Although many of his short stories are no longer popular, several, including "The Gift of the Magi," have endured and continue to be enjoyed by readers today.

Literary Devices

O. Henry uses several literary devices to make his short stories distinctive:

  • Structured plot: His stories are readily identifiable by their tightly structured plots. When crafting his stories, O. Henry decided on the endings first and then wrote the beginnings and middles of the stories to match them. For example, in "The Gift of the Magi," O. Henry chose the ending of a couple who sold their most prized possessions in order to buy Christmas gifts for each other and then discovered their gifts could not be used because of what they had sold. The beginning and middle of the story was written to lead up to that ending.
  • Surprise ending: "The Gift of the Magi" is often considered one of the best-known examples of situational irony in a short story. Situational irony occurs when something other than the expected happens. For example, in "The Gift of the Magi," the two spouses plan to surprise each other with a special Christmas gift. They each sell their most prized possession, which makes the gift they each receive useless since it was meant to complement the now-lost treasured possession. These surprise endings are known as the "O. Henry twist." In "The Gift of the Magi," there is a double twist at the ending. The first twist is that Jim Young has purchased combs for Della Young that she cannot use because she has cut her hair. The second twist, another example of situational irony, is that Della has purchased a chain for Jim's watch, which he cannot use as he has sold his watch.
  • Particular character types: The characters are frequently types—such as a young husband or wife as in "The Gift of the Magi," a shop girl, or another working-class person—rather than unique, well-developed individuals. Many are newcomers to New York, who, like O. Henry, became enamored of its charms and sought to fulfill their dreams despite their lackluster personal situations, shabby environs, and financial struggles. O. Henry, however, typically shows the best side of the characters. Even when the characters do something wrong, he often makes certain that things end well for them.
  • Unique phrases and words: O. Henry's folksy style is often peppered with unique phrases, idioms, and high-level vocabulary. For example, O. Henry loved multisyllabic words not typically part of everyday conversation. "The Gift of the Magi" features words such as imputation, parsimony, mendicancy, and meretricious. A lover of similes, exaggeration, and nonparallel construction, O. Henry often wrote complex sentences when a simpler one would do. For example, in "The Gift of the Magi," the narrator says, "Let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction," when "Let us look away" would have done just as well.
  • Narrative technique: O. Henry's narrative technique is straightforward and simple. He narrates his stories as if he were talking directly to the reader. The narrator frequently interrupts the story to address the reader in asides or to interject authorial musings about a topic or event as if he were speaking confidentially to a reader he knows well. For example, in "The Gift of the Magi," the narrator tells the reader to "take a look at the home" while Della Young is sobbing and sniffling. O. Henry also uses devices such as capitalizing words to emphasize symbols. For example, Jim Young's watch is "The Watch," and Jim's gift to Della is "The Combs." Similarly, he often uses similes to create comparisons that contrast city living with country living: Jim is so stunned at seeing Della's shorn tresses he appears "as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail." O. Henry also uses contrast to create imagery and tension. For example, he describes the combs as beautiful and "just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair."
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