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 directly addresses the reader as “you.” It is almost as if the narrator is an additional character that is heard, but never seen, engaging the reader as a friend and sharing his insights into the Youngs’ situation. The narrator tells the story in a joking, neighborly way, with several funny asides directed at the reader. He uses casual expressions such as “took a mighty pride” and interrupts his tale with humorous phrases like “forget the hashed metaphor.” Another writer who often uses this technique, sometimes called authorial intrusion, is Charles Dickens.
Although “The Gift of the Magi” is a famous story, O. Henry is mainly known for the type of story he wrote, rather than for individual pieces. All of the stories follow certain patterns of character, plot, structure, and setting. The settings of O. Henry’s stories are often grouped into five categories: the American South, the West, Central America, prison, and New York.
“The Gift of the Magi” is a New York story. Although almost half of his stories are set in New York, O. Henry establishes the particular settings of each story with great attention to detail. In “The Gift of the Magi,” the writer uses details of the setting to show that Jim and Delia are poor. As soon as the story opens, he describes “the shabby little couch,” the dismal view (“she.. .looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard”), “the letter box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring.” The writer’s careful rendering of setting—and mood—help the reader understand just how big are the sacrifices Delia and Jim are making when they sell their most prized possessions. The details of place also help make the story seem realistic on one level, although on another level it becomes an allegory.
“The Gift of the Magi” is also a good example of the kind of story structure, or organization, for which O. Henry became famous. One of the most widely recognized elements of his fiction is the surprise ending; in fact, many critics refer to the sudden, unexpected turn of events at the very end of a story as “the O. Henry twist.”
O. Henry was an economical writer. As in this story, he often began by introducing a character and giving telling details about setting that hint at plot. The first paragraph, primarily made up of short phrases and sentence fragments, introduces Delia and her money problem. Using very little space, O. Henry gives readers an accurate sense of her character, her predicament, and her surroundings. He outlines her decision and its aftermath in a tightly constructed plot, moving quickly from introduction to action and on to the surprise ending.
Another element of “The Gift of the Magi” is allusion, or references to well-known people, places, events, or artistic works. When the narrator in this story describes Delia’s hair and Jim’s watch, he alludes to the Bible:”Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Delia 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.”
O. Henry’s use of allusion here accomplishes three things. First, it is funny. The thought of the Queen of Sheba living in the apartment across the airshaft from Delia and Jim Young, and the thought of King Solomon as a janitor—these are silly images, designed not just to make readers laugh but also, perhaps, to remind them that Delia and Jim do not take their circumstances too seriously. Second, by comparing Delia’s hair and Jim’s watch to royal treasures, O. Henry lets his readers know how special these items are. Finally, this lighthearted allusion to the Bible prepares the way for the more serious allusion which appears at the end of the story, when Delia and Jim are compared to the Magi.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, O. Henry, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.