The Use of Irony in “The Gift of Magi”
Imagine having only pennies to but being one of the richest persons in the world! This is the case in O. Henry’s The Gift of Magi. In his wonderful short story, the author, O. Henry, writes of a struggling couple living in New York City around the turn of the 19th century. Although poor almost destitute and struggling, the couple love one another deeply, and sacrifice the thing that is most important to each other to make the other happy. The reader is drawn into the world of this young wife and husband as they sacrifice what one would think is most important to them, for the happiness of the other. In The Gift of Magi, O. Henry’s use of irony throughout the story makes the surprising ending even more poignant, as we realize the couple’s true wealth lies in their love and sacrifice for each other, beyond the value of any Christmas gift.
Irony occurs repeatedly in this short story, and O. Henry uses it to accentuate the intense love and devotion the couple have for each other. Literary irony is defined as “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or may have been, expected” (Webster). The author begins in his description of both characters to set up an ironic juxtaposition of them and the one thing they possess that is of true wealth to them. To Della, the wife, her hair is her prize possession. “Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts” (Henry). Although she has but $1.87 to her name, although her husband makes little money, and they live a grey life, O. Henry uses her beautiful long hair as the one thing she has which is of value to her. There is little else of material wealth in the story which seems to matter to her, other than her hair.
Della’s husband, Jim, a hard-working man, earns barely enough to cover his rent and food, and also has no money saved. He does possess one thing that is of “value,” though, his watch. O. Henry describes the watch thusly: “Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy” (Henry). Again, the reader is led to believe that this wonderful watch was Jim’s prize possession in the world. We are given little information as to what Jim and Della’s relationship is like, beyond their shared poverty and their desire to buy each other a Christmas present this year.
Della decides to cut her hair and sell it to raise enough money to buy a watch fob for Jim, and at great personal sacrifice, she does so. As Jim comes home and sees his wife without her locks, it matters not, as he shows her his Christmas presents for her– a beautiful set of combs for his Della. Ironically, she cannot use them, since she had just cut off her hair! And finally, ironies of ironies, Jim opens her present for him, only to see a watch fob which he cannot use, since he sold his watch to pay for the comb set he bought Della for her Christmas gift.
But perhaps the greatest irony in the story, and one which permeates its title, characters, plot, is how wealthy the couple actually are, in the face of such poverty. O. Henry ends the tale with his summation of the couple: “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 wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi” (Henry). The couple seem poor and destitute, but they are rich in love and giving. They seem like they are materialistic, as they sell thing valuable to them to buy objects for their spouse, but in fact they are concerned only for each other. They are willing to give up the one thing in life that others see as of value, but in the end, they were of little value to them when compared to the value of the love and caring they have for each other. It is in this spirit that the Magi gave their gifts to the baby Jesus, gifts that are of value, but pale in comparison to the sacrifices the kings made by traveling to see the baby and to show their respect and love in their hearts they had for him. It is this love and respect that O. Henry wished to capture in his little tale of a little family in a New York City flat. Miracles can happen in Bethlehem in a manger, as well as in the everyday lives of everyday people who love each other. We finally see their wealth goes much beyond $1.87, a comb set, and flowing brown hair. Wealthy and wise, indeed!
Henry, O. The Gift of Magi. .
Webster. “Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary Online. “ 22 October 2011. .