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 Current-Garcia to maintain that “the pseudonym O. Henry has become a symbol representing, especially to foreigners, a particular kind of ‘All-American’ short story, as well as a touchstone for evaluating the art of short fiction writing in general.” An annual award for a volume of the best short stories was named for him in 1819, and The O. Henry Awards is still published each year.
Though the decade following his death in 1910 saw critics comparing his short stories to those of such greats as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry’s star began to decline in the 1930s, particularly as new, “experimental” writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rose to prominence. The majority of critics then dubbed O. Henry’s stories facile, anecdotal, superficial, and flippant. His work was discredited for its convenient endings, its sentimentality, and what Katherine Fullerton Gerrould in a 1916 assessment called its “pernicious influence” on the genre of the short story because his stories lacked intellectual content. Over the years, some critics have continued to fight against the mainstream, and with the help of a loyal reading public they have reinstated O. Henry among important American writers. Though his work is constantly being reassessed, it is now generally agreed that O. Henry’s stories are the work of a skilled and inventive writer; it is recognized that part of his gift is the ability to write of people and situations with which the American public could identify. His place as a major player in the development of a truly American literature is perhaps finally assured. But the question remains, however, of why readers throughout the twentieth century, in comparison to critics, have little quarrel with the stories of O. Henry.
There are many possibilities. One might suggest that readers are not averse to the surprise ending, even when it is so much a part of a writer’s repertoire that it is no longer a surprise. Guy de Maupassant, one of the masters of the short story, uses a surprise ending tragically in “The Necklace”; this ending assuredly does not detract from the skill of the writing and tale telling. The zany plots of Saki (H. H. Munro) give the surprise ending a lighthearted twist, such as in his brief but bewitching tale “The Open Window.” Each of these three writers takes a plot contrivance but uses it originally, thus making it an integral part of the story. H. E. Bates maintains in The Modern Short Story that”by the telling of scores of stories solely for the point, the shock, or the witty surprise of the last line, O. Henry made himself famous and secured for himself a large body of readers.”
There are, of course, a variety of other reasons that readers like O. Henry. Perhaps one of the most important is that not all art is meant to appeal primarily to the intellect or the intellectuals. O. Henry’s readers wanted to read about regular people. As William Saroyan wrote in the 1960s, “The people of America loved O. Henry… He was a nobody, but he was a nobody who also was a somebody, everybody’s somebody.” O. Henry’s work is popular art, which is specifically created to appeal to the masses, but it is not necessarily a lower form of art.
The engaging nature of”The Gift of the Magi” has no doubt helped O. Henry’s reputation throughout the century. This story of a poor married couple who give up their most prized possessions—his watch and her hair—to buy each other Christmas gifts—a watch fob for him and decorative combs for her—has been widely anthologized. It is often taught in high-school English classes because of its accessibility and its usefulness as a tool for discussing the elements of a short story.
“The Gift of the Magi” also is a prime example of O. Henry’s talent at presenting situations to which people could, and wanted to, respond. One critic, N. Bryllion Fagin, who finds O. Henry to be at best “a master trickster” in an essay published in Current-Garcia’s O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction, sarcastically details why “The Gift of the Magi” is so popular:”Why is it a masterpiece? Not because it tries to take us into the home of a married couple attempting to exist in our largest city on the husband’s income of $20 per week. No, that wouldn’t make it famous. Much better stories of poverty have been written, much more faithful and poignant, and the great appreciative public does not even remember them. It is the wizard’s mechanics, his stunning invention—that’s the thing!” Ironically, Fagin arrives at something utterly crucial to the success of ‘ “The Gift of the Magi”: that it has everything—an absorbing (if short) narrative drive and a twist ending that makes it wholly original.
The story opens with another of O. Henry’s trademarks: a quick, compelling beginning that immediately involves the reader while providing a sense of the background of the narrative drive: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. 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.” So, even before having knowledge of the impoverished circumstances of the protagonists Delia and Jim Dillingham Young, the reader has learned that the main conflict of the story concerns their lack of money. Also foreshadowed in this opening are the sacrifices Delia and Jim will make for each other. Delia shows herself already acquainted with saving and scrimping, elements of sacrifice; her ability to withstand the reproach of the vendors highlights her ultimate willingness to give up something she values highly—her hair—for that which she values more— her love for her husband.
It is important that readers become involved with the story in the first few lines, for the success of the story, through the surprise ending, truly hinges on its brevity. If readers spend too much time with a story, they may feel they deserve a more complex and “bigger” ending; the story’s brevity allows the reader not to feel cheated but, instead, satisfied. The surprise ending really is ideal, for “The Gift of the Magi” never attempts to make a grand statement. In the words of Current-Garcia, it “encapsulates what the world in all its stored-up wisdom knows to be indispensable in ordinary family life”: unselfish love, the only thing that has the power to transform. The message itself is so strong that to focus intently on the messengers—the Youngs—would only serve as a deflection.
The message thus can only be effectively delivered in an understated fashion. O. Henry understands this and downplays the theme in his treatment of the Youngs. Despite the rather dour circumstances of their poverty and despite their having fallen from better times, they maintain an air of joy. Delia, though having just cut off the hair which could rival the jewels belonging to a queen, still experiences “intoxication” at finding the perfect present for Jim. Jim willingly gives up the watch that would have made King Solomon “pluck at his beard with envy.” After they realize that the gifts bought through their mutual sacrifices have no use at the present time, they do not bemoan their fates or even deem their sacrifices unworthy. Delia, smiling, asserts, ‘”My hair grows so fast, Jim!'” Jim, sitting on the couch with his hands behind his head—the posture of a relaxed man—declares, ‘”let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em awhile. They’re too nice to use just at present.'” This acceptance also points to his affirming belief that life will improve, that he and Delia will not always be poor, and that their lives will be enriched for this sacrifice: instead of having only two possessions “in which they both took a mighty pride,” they will have four, after Delia’s hair grows back and Jim buys another watch.
O. Henry’s descriptions of the Youngs and their situation support this viewpoint. Though they wear old clothes, have a “letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring,” and live in an apartment surrounded by “a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard,” they are not shabby, in either sense of the word. Delia is akin to a saintlike figure in her capacity for acceptance. She does not regret her lifestyle. “She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things,” but she does not ask for help for the big ones, such as changing hers and Jim’s circumstances. When presented with the combs she reflects how “her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession.” O. Henry clearly approves of her in everything she does. With her short hair, the strong authorial voice notes that she “look[s] wonderfully like a truant schoolboy,” while she quite calmly accepts that she now resembles a “Coney Island chorus girl.” Yet, she has not lost the respectability necessary to a married woman, for in closing, the authorial voice compares Delia and Jim to those holy men who initiated gift giving on Christmas, the three magi.
Certainly elements of the sentimental, the facile, the coincidental—those elements that critics have railed against—can be found in “The Gift of the Magi.” To focus on them as faults, however, is to overlook the subtlety through which O. Henry expresses his approval of his characters as well as their growth throughout the few short hours in which the story plays itself out. Such a narrow reading also ignores the overarching message O. Henry wishes to convey: that it is the unselfish sacrifices we make for those we love that are most crucial to the emotional health of the family. This message itself is not sentimental but rather a universal truth, and as such, almost a moral. In presenting this message in the chosen manner, O. Henry avoids preaching, however—certainly one of the most effective ways to distance an audience. In “The Gift of the Magi” O. Henry gives to readers a heroine and hero they can understand and thus learn from. At the same time that the reader is learning about the power of selflessness, so too are Jim and Delia learning: that their most precious possessions are not something they will ever own, but each other.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, O. Henry, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.