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The Gift of the Magi Short Story by O. Henry

All O. Henry’s works are imbued with attention to imperceptible “little” people, whose troubles and joys are vividly portrayed in his stories. The author aims to draw attention to the genuine human values. As a result, the most seemingly deplorable finals of his short stories begin to be perceived as happy or, at least, optimistic (Muecke 55). O. Henry’s short stories are characterized by subtle irony, a dynamic plot, the absence of psychologism, and unexpected outcome. The writer entered the history of short stories as a master of creating unpredictable consequences. When using a double denouement in the narrative, the first plot pre-decoupling is followed by a second, unexpected denouement, which gives a sharpness to the intrigue and signals a mismatch between the expected and the real in life. For detailed disclosure of the characters of his characters, the author uses irony to lead the plot and describes the situation from different perspectives.

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O. Henry’s story is often built according to the following scheme: an individual situation occurs in the fate of the heroes, and the reader assumes from the very beginning how the story will end. However, the denouement turns out to be unpredictable in contrast the reader’s expectations. Due to the composition with a double denouement, that writer’s short stories are read with great interest, and they keep the intrigue up to the last paragraph.

The short story The Gift of the Magi, a classic example of Henry’s story with an unexpected ending, is part of the world’s literary heritage. The author gave this novel the features of a literary riddle, and the reader is not totally aware of the situation until the end. The action takes place in New York on Christmas Eve; due to the lack of money, Della decides to sell her luxurious hair to give her husband Jim a watch chain. “I must tell you that the James Dillingham Young couple had two treasures that were their pride. One is Jim’s gold watch that belonged to his father and grandfather, and the other is Della’s hair” (Henry 143 ). Returning home and seeing his wife, Jim is puzzled: “His eyes stopped on Della with an expression that she could not understand, and she became afraid” (Henry 143). His wife comforts him in every possible way, says that her hair proliferates, that she could not do otherwise.

The further development of the plot and the irony over what happened are demonstrated through dialogues. It turns out that Jim was puzzled because he bought her a set of combs as a gift. “Wonderful combs, real tortoiseshell ones, with shiny stones embedded in the edges, and just the color of her brown hair… And now they belonged to her, but there are no more beautiful braids that would adorn their guided brilliance” (Henry 144). In this part, the first false pre-decoupling is presented, since Della cannot use the combs.

Subsequently, the reader is surprised at an unexpected outcome when Della gives her husband a chain. It turns out that he sold his watch to buy combs: “… we will have to hide our gifts, for now, let them lie down a little. I sold the watch to buy you combs. And now, perhaps, it’s time to fry the cutlets” (Henry 144). The couple could not use their gifts, sacrificing for each other the most valuable thing they had.

Henry ends this story with the lines: “But let it be said for the edification of the wise men of our day that of all the donors, these two were the wisest” (Henry 145). As conceived by the author, the wisdom of the heroes lies in disinterested love for each other. Telling about self-sacrifice for the sake of a loved one, the writer shows the highest human virtues, which remain the main ones for him in any everyday situation. The story makes the reader believe that love is the best way to overcome temporary troubles. In the rest of his novels, the writer similarly depicts human qualities that can alleviate life’s adversities.

The novel is also remarkable for including both the tragic and the comic elements. The ending seems sad and happy at the same time because the spouses with their disinterested love seem to soften the absurd conclusion of the plot. A remarkable peculiarity is the light irony with which the novelist recounts even the saddest events: “And here I told you an unremarkable story about two stupid children from an eight-dollar apartment who most unwisely sacrificed their greatest treasures for each other” (Henry 145). The author is impressed by the heroes’ actions and, although they encounter a complicated situation on the Christmas eve, this is perceived with irony.

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Conclusively, The Gift of the Magi, like most other short stories by O. Henry, is characterized by a dynamic plot, a double denouement consisting of a deceptive pre-decoupling and an actual unexpected denouement, as well as subtle irony and tragicomic, due to which even the most tragic denouements of his short stories are perceived on a positive note. The irony over the characters appears before the reader not as an evil satire but as a kind emotion over the characters’ sincere feelings. The heroes’ love for each other evokes a smile, and, although they sacrificed the most valuable that they had for the sake of gifts, they remain ironic over themselves.


Henry, O. Best short stories. Courier Corporation, 2002.

Muecke, Douglas Colin. Irony and the Ironic. 12th ed., Routledge, 2017.

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