William Sydney Porter, or O. Henry as it is widely known, is one of the most famous names in American literature. He was a master short-story writer of nearly 300 short stories. With a very inventive mind, he made plots for his stories from the commonplace things. The settings of his stories were drawn from his experience and, likewise, his characters were based on actual people he had known. In rapid-moving prose, he developed his stories imaginatively and skillfully, keeping readers wondering about the outcome, which was always a surprise.
Among his short stories, The Gift of the Magi is possibly the most well-known. Its enduring appeal can be traced to the universal themes of wealth, poverty, and generosity wrapped together by the selfless love of the two main characters Jim and Della. In other words, the theme of “The Gift of the Magi” is the “Irony of life”. To understand clearly the irony of life in “The Gift of the Magi”, we need to know the meaning of a word “irony”. So what is irony? Irony is a situation, an event, or a thing that is desirable in itself but so unexpected or ill-timed that it appears to be deliberately unacceptable or unreasonable.
In “The Gift of the Magi”, “the irony of life” is presented through a story of love and sacrifice between a young couple, Jim and Della, who are poor materially but not poor spiritually: in fact, they are generous lovers and the love and care and sacrifice they show to each other is beyond doubt and beyond limit. Firstly, the “irony of life” in “The Gift of the Magi” lies in the coincidence of Della and Jim’s thoughts and actions. “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. ” Della counted it three times.
On Christmas, people often give a present to their lover, their relatives, their friends… and Della wanted to do the same. Unexpectedly, her possession is only one dollar and eighty-seven cents, she felt unhappy and confused. “She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. ” Everything turned into gray in her mind. She desired to buy a Christmas present for her dear Jim. However, she could do nothing with only one dollar and eighty-seven cents. “Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass.
Her eyes were shining brilliant, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its lengths. ” Della decided to sell her beautiful blonde hair for 20 dollars and she felt happy with money in her hand. She sold her sole invaluable treasure to buy a chain of the watch for Jim. How about Jim? In order to buy a Christmas gift for Della, he had to do the same – sell his golden watch. They both got each other gifts with the money they had got from selling their treasures.
Each of the couple in the story tries to show their love and care and sacrificed for each other through the selling of his/her own treasure to glorify the beauty of the treasure of the other with a true sense of delight and satisfaction. The gifts that they sold each had something to do with what they had got each other. Della had got Jim a medallion for his watch, while Jim had got Della beautiful comb for her hair. Each of the couple in the story feels happy with his/her thought and act of love and generosity. O.
Henry skillfully invented a coincidence with unexpected plots which shows us the irony of life. “He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face. ” It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that Della had been prepared for. Jim got shocked because his present turned to be unacceptable and useless. “They are too nice to use at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. ” His statement seems a natural commentary on the uselessness of the gifts since their intended purpose has been ironically removed. He drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table. “Don’t make any mistake, Della,” he said, about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a hair cut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going awhile at first. While fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! A quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat. At that time, they find out that they have failed to anticipate the other’s sacrifice for the other’s sake: their gifts of love and generosity turn out to be unacceptable to each other. Secondly, the couple in “The Gift of the Magi” is true lovers with not only great minds but also great hearts. “Great minds think alive,” says a proverb. Della loves Jim in every out of parsimony, in every day of her life. Jim loves Della not with his words but with his daily care and understanding and sacrifice. When O.
Henry further said that Jim and Della were “two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of the house” he, in fact, wanted to praise their generosity and care-for-each-other. In other words, the words “foolish” and “unwisely” were used as ironies here: he talked about their stupidity in order to set off their greatness. It was due to their noble thoughts and acts that their gifts became the most treasured and they became the wisest: “But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wises.
Of all who give and receive gifts such as they are wisest. They are the magi. ” It’s their love and sacrifice for each other that make them the wisest among “the wise of these days”. Jim’s remark is a comment on the value of the gifts. They are too nice not only because of the money they represent but also because of the sacrifice love they show. Self-sacrifice in the name of love is the wisest gift. With Jim’s act of selling his watch for a set of combs for Della’s hair, the story comes to an end. However, what the writer wants to convey to his readers goes beyond the story itself.
It is his philosophy of love. Any quick-minded reader would soon recognize a close correspondence between the two protagonists and O. Henry himself. If Della and Jim unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house, only to find later that they were stuck in a half-clever half-foolish situation, then O. Henry, likewise, with all his love for his little daughter, had offered her “generous Christmas gifts of money”, only to find later that he was constantly in financial difficulties. In the story, Della and Jim each think they are getting the other the perfect gift.
The irony is that each of them pays for the gift with something that makes the other’s gift worthless. Della has no hair to put the comb in and Jim has no watch to hang from the chain. At the end, the married couple recognizes that the love they have for each other – and their willingness to sacrifice for the other – is more important than any tangible gift. Through his own example and his story, O. Henry might have wanted to raise a philosophical point of view about love: Love means making sacrifices for happiness.
The two young lovers in our story showed no hesitation in selling his/her own treasure to buy a gift of love for the other, and they must have been happy people, despite the fact that the irony of life did occur to them and make their gifts unexpectedly become unacceptable! By realistic writing, O. Henry wants to convey many other messages at the same time. The couple in the story shows their love to each other with not only their sacrifice but also their care, sympathy and well-understanding. “It’s sold, I tell you it’s sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy.
Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered… but nobody could ever count my love for you…” True love just goes with the couple who well understand and sympathize with each other and great love just comes to those who are willing to sacrifice for the other. Another message implied in the story is that once we are in love, we should love with all our heart and never doubt that the sacrifice for our lover may come to nothing. Though the tortoise combs for Della and the fob chain for Jim became useless at the moment, they served as living proof of their boundless ove and care, and that was enough, more than enough for any couple, today and tomorrow alike, not only for Della and Jim alone. 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 annot 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 Youngs’ love is their deep generosity. Delia and Jim are very poor, and yet Delia decides to sell her only treasure: her hair. O.
Henry shows that this is not an easy sacrifice for Delia to make. He contrasts Delia’s gorgeous hair with the Youngs’ impoverished apartment. The Queen of Sheba herself would have been jealous of this treasure, he asserts, and he gives his readers a vivid image of it: “Delia’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. ” The color drains from Delia’s face when she makes her decision, and she urges Mme. Sofronie to hurry — perhaps so she will not change her mind. O.
Henry does not show the decision-making process when Jim sells his watch, but he does describe how important the watch is to him. Handed down from his grandfather to his father to Jim, the watch is lauded as a treasure that even wealthy King Solomon would covet. Jim, too, sells his only valuable possession, so that he may buy his wife a special Christmas gift. Delia has never asked for the combs that Jim buys her, but clearly he has seen her face when she has passed the combs in the shop window and has decided that his wife, and his love for her, are more important than his precious keepsake.
The themes of love and generosity work hand in hand with the story’s examination of what it means to be rich or poor. O. Henry provides many details to illustrate Jim and Delia’s poverty. The furniture in their apartment is shabby; the apartment’s doorbell does not work, and it is not possible even to put a letter in their mail slot. They do not own a proper mirror. When Delia goes out, she puts on “her old brown jacket” and “her old brown hat,” and Jim needs gloves and a new overcoat. Their rent is $8 per week, and Jim makes only $20 per week.
In contrast, the narrator of the story makes biblical allusions concerning the great value of Delia’s hair and Jim’s watch; even King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba would be jealous of such fine things. And yet Jim and Delia each sacrifice their only good material possessions out of love for the other. In short, O. Henry makes the point that while Jim and Delia are terribly poor by material standards, they are wealthy beyond compare in their love for each other. “The Gift of the Magi” is often held up as a story about true love and about the true spirit of Christmas and of giving.