The story “The Gift of the Magi” was written in 1906 by O. Henry (real name – William Sydney Porter) – a famous American writer. O. Henry's short stories are known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterization and clever twist endings. Most of O. Henry's stories are set in his own time, the early 20th century. Many take place in New York City and deal for the most part with ordinary people: clerks, policemen, waitresses, etc.
O. Henry's works are wide-ranging, and his characters can be found roaming the cattle-lands of Texas or investigating the tensions of class and wealth in turn-of-the-century New York. O. Henry had an inimitable hand for isolating some element of society and describing it with an incredible economy and grace of language. O'Henry wrote colorful short stories with surprising and ironic twists. He wrote in a humorous style and, as in "The Gift of the Magi," often ironically used coincidences and surprise endings. Some of his best and least-known work is contained in “Cabbages and Kings”, a series of stories each of which explores some individual aspect of life in a paralytically sleepy Central American town, while advancing some aspect of the larger plot and relating back one to another.
Among his most famous stories are: "The Gift of the Magi", "The Ransom of Red Chief", "The Cop and the Anthem", "A Retrieved Reformation", "The Duplicity of Hargraves".
The story goes about a young couple who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. Unbeknown to Jim, Della sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's watch; while unbeknown to Della, Jim sells his own most valuable possession, his watch, to buy jewelled combs for Della's hair. Jim and Della though called “foolish children”, but their gifts are compared with those of the magis’ which are said to be the wisest.
There are several themes in the story:
- Love knows no bounds.
- Sacrifice as proof of wisdom.
- Wealth is not a material thing, but love that is spiritual.
- Femininity is great power.
The events in the story take place in New York City in a very modest apartment and in a hair shop down the street from the apartment. O. Henry sketches the flat with just enough detail to convey it’s image: cheap, sparsely furnished, broken mailbox and doorbell. Everything was grey: Della “looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard”. It is also a case of asyndeton because the conjunction “at” in “walking a grey fence” is omitted. From the “gas” which Della lights and gadgets she has: a stove and curling irons, it can be said that the story is set about the time O. Henry wrote it – the first decade of the 20th century). The setting is described in details and it contributes to the vision of poverty and hard life of the young family. The setting of the events is realistic. Porter does not mention New York by name, but he refers to Coney Island, the city's most famous amusement park, located in the borough of Brooklyn. O. Henry also mentions that Della had worshipped the combs for long in a Broadway window. This is another proof that events take place in New York. The action takes place on a Christmas Eve. The drabness of the setting in which Jim and Della live create a contrast with the atmosphere of Christmas and the warmth and richness of their love for each other.
From the very first line of the story we notice the usage of such graphical means as capitalization: “ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. THAT WAS ALL. AND SIXTY CENTS of it was in pennies”. It is used to draw our attention to the main problem – lack of money. The usage of the pronoun “one” instead of “her” in the following sentence: “Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied” give an utterance a more general character and underline Della’s state when she had to ask money. It was hard for her and she found herself in an awkward situation. There is an epithet: “silent imputation of parsimony”. It also stresses that though Della was strong by her nature: she was “bulldozing” but she was also timid. The inversion: “Three times Della counted it” underline how thrifty and careful Della was. There are constant repetitions of the phase: “one dollar and eighty-seven cents” which stress Della’s hopelessness. A repetition of adjectives “grey”: “…looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard” helps to create the atmosphere of sadness. Anticlimax: “life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles” describe the reality of life”. Another epithet: “beggar description” which is the combination on N1+N2, with N1 performing the function of an adjective describing the flat in which the Dillinghams lived and underline their poverty. The periphrasis: “mortal finger” stands for “person, human being”. It emphasizes the hopeless case of the family. Archaic usage of “thereunto” means “to that”. The usage of metonymy is noticed in the case when the surname “Dillingham” substitutes the word “card with the surname”. A nominative sentence “Her Jim” increase the dynamism and flow of Della’s thoughts. Te usage of article “a” together with a noun with and adjective: “Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him” add stylistic colouring and draw our attention to the fact that Della really troubled about the present because with the help of it she wanted to show her attitude to Jim. This is also a case of inversion: the adverbial modifier is placed at the beginning of the sentence. In the following sentence the case of inversion can also be noticed: “Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length”. It underlines Della’s emotions and wish to act quickly.
James and Della took “mighty pride” in their possessions. This is a case of hyperbole to underline the importance of their ownings to them. There is an allusion from Bible about Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and their wealth, jewels and gifts which are nothing in comparison with Della’s hair and Jim’s watch. Inversion is used in the following sentences: “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”. It underlines how proud the Dillinghams where of their possessions.
The story is the first and third person narrative. There are also descriptions. The main characters of the story are Jim and Della. The secondary character is Madame Sofronie. Jim and Della are also named as: James Dillingham Youngs – the compound name for the family as one unity of a husband and wife. Della is described as a real woman. She is full of emotions which are described with the help of metaphor: “There was clearly nothing to do but flop down and… howl. So Della did it”. Della had nothing to do but howl – dolefully like a wolf.
Jim is a man and he is quite reserved. The case of periphrasis in naming Jim “lord of the flat” stress that it was he who was who was the breadwinner in the family; “employment of all the comforting powers” is the periphrasis which means that Della needed Jim to hug her and comfort, to calm her down. Madame Sofronie is rather unconversable. She had “a practised hand” in cutting hair, this is the case of epithet. She was “large, too white, chilly, hardly looked”. The usage of the noun in plural: "Take her hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it” adds intensification.
Simile is used to describe Della’s greatest possession her hair: “Della’s beautiful hair fell like a cascade of brown water”. Her hair is a wavy as it is like a cascade, its colour is like brown water.
An example of anaphora which is used to emphasize the repeated unit: “On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat”. It used to show that Della was categoric and she knew and was sure in what she was doing.
The metaphor: “tripped by on rosy wings” describes the mood of Della. She was happy, she was ready to seek for a present for Jim. The fob that had Della bought had “meretricious ornamentation” – epithet, used to describe the beauty of her present, but at the same time it was valuable and simple: “Quietness and value--the description applied to both”. Inversion in the sentence: “Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 78 cents” helps to show how unwilling Della was to give money, how thrifty she was. She would have better bought Jim a new overcoat and gloves – a practical thing, but she was a romantic figure, she valued Jim and she wanted to give him something special. The usage of oxymoron “properly anxious” underline that this fob is also a practical thing. Inversion: “Grand as the watch was” emphasize the refinement of it.
Comparison is noticed: “That made her looks like a truant schoolboy.” After having had her hair cut Della can be compared in her appearance to a truant schoolboy: wandering and straying. Short hair gave her the look of a boy, not of a woman, her look was deprived of femininity.
Della’s looking in the glass is described with the help of gradation: “She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically”. Probably she hadn’t yet realized what she had had done. She somehow tried to comfort herself.
When Della was waiting for Jim she was rather nervous. She was saying “the little silent prayers” – epithet. Jim’s reaction to the new Della’s style is described with the help of simile: “Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail”. He was tired after work and this simile underlines his seriousness and shock”. There is an example of repetition of the negative particle “not” to describe Jim’s shock when he saw Della: “It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for”. Here is also anticlimax (nouns “anger – surprise – disapproval – horror”) to describe Della’s relief from Jim’s reaction. Della’s overflow of emotions is can be noticed with the usage of oxymoron: she said that her hair grows “awfully fast”. Antithesis is used to describe opposing feelings: “And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! A quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails”.
Jim’s fatigue has nothing to do with his surprise, it is “the hardest mental labour for him” – the case of epithet. It helps to emphasize Jim’s shock. Della talked to him with “serious sweetness” – oxymoron, used to stress Della’s wish to calm Jim down and at the same time not to irritate him.
Repetition of the conjunction “or” in the sentence: “I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less” indicate Jim’s release from his trance. With the help of epithet Della’s vanished hair is described as “coverted adornments”, to emphasize that now when she got those combs she lacked her hair, now it seems even more precious for her than those combs.
“Della leaped up like a little singed cat” is simily which is used to describe Della’s swiftiness. Graphon used in the sentence: “"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while” emphasizes Jim’s psychological condition, he understood the whole trick.
Speeches in the story give us a particular relief as they are like bridges from what we think may happen next to what is the way out and solution of a certain unexpected twist or problem. Speeches are direct as they are presented in the form of a dialogue and inner (interior monologue) as they present the characters’ thoughts, ideas, beliefs and views. There are also cases of indirect speech which is transformed by the author. There are also inserts of author’s speech.
The story starts with the initial accident: the conflict is set in motion. Della has $1.87 and she has to do something with it to buy a Christmas present for Jim. The rising action is when Della decides to have her hair cut and buys a present for Jim. Climax is when Jim sees Della and is speechless, Della has mixed feelings. The falling action is when Della and Jim find out that they have sold their most precious possessions to buy each other Christmas presents. The resolution is when Jim and Della decide to have Christmas supper.
O. Henry in the story “The Gift of the Magi” brilliantly uses epithets, inversions, similies, periphrases and oxymorons which help to create the true-to-life atmosphere of the events depicted.