It would be difficult to find a reader of short American fiction who does not have at least an acquaintance with O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.” This story, penned for the Christmas edition of a weekly magazine, is essential O. Henry. It is as synonymous with his name as its technique of the surprise ending.
O. Henry, pseudonym for William Sydney Porter, reached great fame in the first decade of the twentieth century as a writer of some 300 short stories. They are known for their pervasive sense of humor, their quick, chatty beginnings, their confidential narrator, and, of course, their inclusion of one of several types of surprise endings. O. Henry’s fame traveled beyond the borders of the United States; his short story collections have been translated into many foreign languages and can be found throughout the world. Some stories have also been adapted for television, screen, and stage. Such exposure has led O. Henry biographer Eugene . . . Read More
Point of View
In “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry uses a folksy narrator to tell the story of Jim and Delia Young, a poor young couple who buy each other special Christmas gifts, which ironically cancel each other out because Delia sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, which he in turn has sold to buy her a fine set of combs for her hair. Despite the fact that these gifts are now useless, Jim and Delia have given each other the greatest gift of all, which the narrator compares to the gifts given to the Christ child by the wise men, or magi: selfless love.
O. Henry employs several techniques, or literary devices, in “The Gift of the Magi” that are typical of most of his short stories. The first of these is a narrator with personality and presence. Although the story focuses on Delia’s point of view— the reader sees primarily what Delia sees—the story is told in another narrative voice that . . . Read More
Love, generosity, and the various definitions of wealth and poverty are central themes in “The Gift of the Magi,” in which a poor, loving young husband and wife sell the only valuable things they own to give each other special Christmas gifts. Delia Young sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a platinum watch chain, and Jim sells his heirloom watch to buy Delia some tortoiseshell hair combs. These gifts are useless, in one sense; Delia cannot wear her combs without her hair, and Jim, without his watch, cannot use his watch chain.
But the narrator of the story points out that the Youngs possess a gift greater than any object: the gift of love. He compares them to the magi (the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem), saying:”let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest…. They are the magi.”
Growing out of the . . . Read More
See Delia Young
See James Dillingham Young
See Mme Sofronie
Madame Sofronie, the only character in the story other than the Youngs, owns the local hairgoods shop; in the early 1900s, when this story was written, wigs were made of real human hair. She has a small role in the story, but O. Henry provides a rich characterization with only one sentence: “Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the ‘Sofronie.'” She is blunt: when Delia asks whether she would buy her hair, she says, “I buy hair” and brusquely tells Delia to take her hat off so she can see it. She offers Delia twenty dollars for her hair.
Delia is the wife of Jim Young. As the story opens, she is counting the money that she has saved to buy her . . . Read More
Delia and Jim Young, the main characters in “The Gift of the Magi,” are a young married couple with very little money. Jim has suffered a thirty-percent pay cut, and the two must scrimp for everything. On the day before Christmas, Delia counts the money she has painstakingly saved for months. She is dismayed to find she has less than two dollars, hardly enough to buy anything at all. After a good long cry, Delia determines to find a way to buy Jim the present he deserves. As she looks into a mirror, an idea comes to her.
Jim and Delia have two possessions of which they are both proud. One is Jim’s gold watch, which has been handed down from his grandfather. The other is Delia’s hair, lustrous, shining, and falling past her knees. Before she can lose her nerve, Delia races out of the apartment to a wigmaker, Mme. Sofronie, to whom she sells her hair for twenty dollars. With the money in her hand, Delia goes to the stores, trying to find something . . . Read More
What happens in “The Fall of the House of Usher”? This story contains many suggestions of psychic and supernatural influences upon the feelings of the narrator and the nerves of Roderick Usher. But the influences are not defined. No ghosts appear. Surely, Poe as craftsman intended the story to do what it does, to arouse a sense of unearthly terror that springs from a vague source, hinted and mysterious. Poe stated that his aim in tales of terror was to create “terror … not of Germany but of the soul,” or not of the charnel but of the mind. He wrote to Thomas W. White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, that tales of terror are made into excellent stories by “the singular heightened into the strange and mystical.” The influences that seem to drive Roderick Usher to madness, to kill him and Madeline, and even to destroy the House are certainly strange and mysterious. They seem rooted in some postulate of the supernatural, but the . . . Read More
“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. At a time when most popular literature was highly moralistic, Poe’s stories were concerned only with creating emotional effects. Poe charged that most of his contemporaries were “didactic,” that is, they were preoccupied with making religious or political statements in their writings to the detriment of the fiction itself. His own tales of terror, in which he often depicted the psychological disintegration of unstable or emotionally overwrought characters, were in sharp contrast to the works of more highly praised writers of the time. Because of Poe’s disdain for didactic writing, he was little regarded by the literary establishment in his day.
But despite being dismissed by literary critics, Poe’s tales were instrumental in establishing the short story as a viable literary form. Before his time, such short works were not . . . Read More
“The Fall of the House of Usher” centers on Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline, the last surviving members of the Usher family.
The setting of “The Fall of the House of Usher” plays an integral part in the story because it establishes an atmosphere of dreariness, melancholy, and decay. The story takes place in the Usher family mansion, which is isolated and located in a “singularly dreary tract of country.” The house immediately stirs up in the narrator “a sense of insufferable gloom,” and it is described as having “bleak walls,” “vacant eye-like windows,” and “minute fungi overspread [on] the whole exterior.” The interior of the house is equally dreary, with “vaulted and fretted” ceilings, “dark draperies hung upon the walls,” and furniture that is “comfortless, antique, and tattered.” Roderick is also . . . Read More
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, is the story of twin siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher, the last surviving members of the Usher family.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” addresses the nature and causes of evil. Poe creates an atmosphere of evil in the story through the unnamed narrator’s descriptions of the Usher family home, and of Roderick and Madeline. For example, the house is called a “mansion of gloom”; Roderick is described as having “a ghastly pallor of the skin” and hair of “wild gossamer texture”; and Madeline, who the narrator sees only briefly before she dies, stirs up feelings of dread. Although the narrator is unsettled, shocked, and taken aback by his surroundings from the very beginning of the story, it is not clear what is causing such trepidation. When Roderick attempts to explain the cause of his . . . Read More
The unnamed narrator of the story is described as a childhood friend of Roderick Usher’s. However, the narrator notes that he does not know Roderick very well because Roderick’s “reserve had always been excessive and habitual.” The narrator visits the Usher family house after Roderick sends him an emotional letter begging him to come. While he seems skeptical of the supernatural and tries to find rational explanations for the disconcerting things happening around him, the narrator finds himself growing increasingly disturbed by the house and the Ushers. At the end of the story, when both Roderick and Madeline die, he flees and watches the house crumble and fall into a small lake. The narrator has been described as an objective witness to the events in the story, with some suggesting he represents rationality. Others, however, have concluded that he is unreliable and that he may, in fact, have helped Roderick Usher murder . . . Read More