52 Stories: #1 — “Gifts of the Magi” by O. Henry

four red gift boxes
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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

The first entry in my #52Stories journal is a classic–“Gifts of the Magi” by William Sidney Porter, published under the pen-name “O. Henry.” (I always thought the title was “The Gift of the Magi,” but per the O. Henry collection I read last night [and Wikipedia], it’s was actually plural when published originally in 1905.)

I read this story in a collection printed in 1979, but you can read it for yourself here

Unrelated Sidenote: The introduction to the 1979 collection I was reading mentions O. Henry’s “problematic” racial references in his writings, and how later editors tried to clean up some of his antiquated and offensive stereotypes. Unfortunately, being a child of the Reconstruction, Mr. Porter carried a lot of mental baggage that later generations of readers would rightly find offensive. I have nothing to add; I just thought that was an interesting bit of trivia.

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The Set-up:

A housewife resorts to somewhat desperate measures to buy her husband a gift on Christmas Eve; soon she realizes that he has done the same.

The Pay-off:

The plot twist of this story is almost universally known, but I’ll still try to avoid spoiling it, just in case. However, knowing the ending didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this surprisingly short story. I had read it years ago, so it was fun to come back and appreciate it anew. It’s literary cotton candy–it’s sweet and a bit cloying, but there’s not enough substance there to be offensive or heavy. By the same token, it’s not going to “stick to your ribs,” either. It’s just…sweet.

The story’s final lines sum it up perfectly: this was a story of “two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house… They are the Magi.”

If you haven’t read it recently, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes, click the link above, and revisit this sweet literary trifle.

The Lessons:

  • OH’s most famous short story is a great example of how to get a lot of mileage out of a minimal number of pages. I was impressed by how economical the author (henceforth, “OH”) was in setting the scene and describing this couple and their financial situation in just a few paragraphs.
  • The story feels lived-in; the way the author capitalizes certain words (The Combs, The Watch) clues you in that this couple has a personal history that OH isn’t going to flesh out fully. These tokens become symbolic of that fuller life. He leaves just enough unsaid and unexplained that you’re curious about some of the details.
  • OH’s omniscient narration is effective in giving you a sense of who Della is and how she thinks. Jim, on the other hand, is idealized–seen almost entirely through Della’s adoring gaze; he appears in the last page or so and is only given a few lines of dialogue in the story, so we don’t really know much about his character other than through his (unseen) prior actions and his stunned response to Della’s decisions. Honestly, I almost wanted a little more from Jim by the end–he seems a little too perfect–but one wonders if what OH gives us is just enough.
  • OH’s narration overall is a bit heavy-handed in guiding the reader’s emotions, but that’s a style preference, not a problem. That era of American literature has more than a few examples of such narrative influence, I guess.
  • Signs I’m Fully Middle-Aged: Reading the story of the sacrifices this couple in their early 20’s made for each other, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s sweet and all, but you two are in a tight spot financially; wouldn’t it be wiser to buy a less ostentatious gift and save the money, just in case? We’re talking about half-month’s wages here!” Younger-me would be so disappointed.
  • The opening sentence is poetic in its simplicity: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.” Reminded me instantly of “Call me Ishmael” or “Marley was dead”–an opening that sets the tone of the story effectively in just a few words.

The real strength of “Gifts of the Magi” is that it’s all about that moment when Jim comes home; OH doesn’t need to pad the front half of the story with a lot of detail or distraction. His goal is to get to the “twist,” and he does so as directly as he can, with straightforward narration and the barest skeleton of a plot. That said, nothing felt missing; it was just enough to feel true. And that’s why we remember it, more than 110 years after it was first published.

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Agree? Disagree? Have suggestions for my next story to explore? Let me know in the comments!

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