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!

What is #52Stories?

 

the last bow book
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Happy Tuesday, friends!

I thought I’d take a minute–just sit right there–and explain this year’s blog project: #52Stories (formerly #100Stories, because I tend to set overly ambitious goals).

I first started writing fiction in grade school, turning 10-sentence vocabulary homework assignments into 2-3 page serialized adventures, featuring explorers and spies with surprisingly advanced word-usage. My teachers encouraged me to keep writing, and I did, even if it wasn’t for class credit. I wrote short fiction throughout high school and shared it with friends and family. I loved exploring ideas or scenarios in this format. In college, that creative itch shifted toward poetry and dramatic scripts, and eventually a few false-starts on full-length novels.

In recent months, I’ve been thinking about turning my attention back to writing some short fiction (as I try to rebuild a writing rhythm), and that has me thinking: What can I learn about the craft of short story writing by reading (or re-reading) a ton of short stories suggested by everyone I know? 

That question is the inspiration for my 2019 personal reading/blogging challenge: #52Stories.

My list will be based on the recommendations of my blog readers, social media circles, and friends/family, along with a few of my own additions. I’ll be reading all across the dial in terms of genre, while trying to maintain a mix of classic and modern. I don’t purport to have a perfect demographic representation of human writing or experience (my social circles are admittedly limited), but I have tried to open things up as best I can (and I’m absolutely open to more suggestions!).

My plan is to read each story and write a reaction post with 3 parts:

  • a one-sentence blurb about the story’s plot/idea (“the Set-up”);
  • my possibly-but-not-necessarily spoilery reaction to how well it unfolds (“the Pay-off”); and
  • something I can take away from it in terms of how to write better stories (“the Lesson”).

If the story is (legally) available online, I’ll post a link for you to check it out, and if it’s not, I’ll tell you where I found it.

I hope you enjoy #52Stories, and that you find it as fascinating and useful as I expect to. I’m excited to get started–which is a good thing because, at one story a week, I’m already behind! Gotta get cracking! Talk to you soon!

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Any suggestions for #52Stories? Post them below!