Course Hero. "The Gift of the Magi Study Guide." Course Hero. 3 Oct. 2017. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Gift-of-the-Magi/>.
Course Hero. (2017, October 3). The Gift of the Magi Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Gift-of-the-Magi/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "The Gift of the Magi Study Guide." October 3, 2017. Accessed July 19, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Gift-of-the-Magi/.
Course Hero, "The Gift of the Magi Study Guide," October 3, 2017, accessed July 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Gift-of-the-Magi/.
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.
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.
O. Henry uses several literary devices to make his short stories distinctive: