O. Henry: “The Gift of the Magi” (1905) Whether or not you’ve read this story, you’re probably familiar with its broad strokes. A husband and wife with very little money struggle to come up with Christmas gifts for one another. They each possess a single item of great value that they treasure and admire. She has gorgeous long hair, and he has inherited an elegant pocket watch. Without other options that feel satisfactory, the woman’s love prompts her to sell her hair, in order to buy a handsome platinum chain for her husband’s watch, to replace the leather strap he has been using. She gives him the gift on Christmas Eve, when he returns home from work and sees her shortened hair, and his reaction puzzles and concerns her. He then asks her to open his gift: a set of jeweled combs for her long hair, combs that she had long admired from afar. He sold his watch in order to buy her the combs. Thus the husband and wife each sold the object that they most prized, in order to give each other something appropriate as a compliment to what the other most prized. But each wound up selling the treasure that the gifts were meant for, resulting in a pair of elegant, but at the moment useless, Christmas gifts. Their love for one another has been proven, and the story is a happy one, but the key component that it demonstrates is situational irony.
I had heard this story told in a slightly butchered fashion long before I read it. It is often used as the exemplar of an ironic situation, irony being a word that few can define but many can give examples of. This precise plot was the example I was taught in school, in lieu of a dictionary definition of “irony. One definition of irony is “humor based on opposites; something humorous based on contradiction; incongruity.” The humor component, however, is not strictly necessary, or at least is in the eye of the beholder—it would be easy for the couple in the story not to see the humor in their situation. O. Henry, we suppose, wants his readers to see it, perhaps at his characters’ expense.
Thankfully, the tone of O. Henry’s story is remarkably easy-going, even Brechtian in its refusal to tug at the heartstrings until they snap. When I had heard the story spoken aloud, I thought it was about a homeless couple who have nothing in the world but their inherited treasures—this adds a layer of saccharin that is not accurate. Our couple is low-income, but functional, making the whole a bit lighter.
What is most remarkable is how O. Henry has crafted a story that has entered popular mythology. That people know of the plot without having read it is truly noteworthy, and I believe it is the first story on my list that exists outside of the context of the story itself. The theme of live burial in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” is riffed off of and quoted in film and fiction. The evil cobra and good mongoose in “Rikki Tikki Tavi” are known largely via the animated film of the story. O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” exists in the cultural oxygen for folks who have never seen a film version of it, never read it, and think that O. Henry is just a candy bar. That is a remarkable feat, and it’s hard to imagine an author who would not relish creating something that has, in its way, become an example for a rhetorical effect, demonstrating how we understand, or at least explain, situational irony. How many writers can claim to have given dramatic form to a definition?