Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, 1905

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied."
— Opening lines of the story

The Gift of the Magi is one of American writer O. Henry's most famous short stories. It is often read at Christmas time. It is also told to children as a lesson in love, giving, sacrifice, and morality. Basically, that which is good in people.

Jim and Della are much in love and happy in their marriage. The couple live in a small apartment, lead a simple life, and have just enough money to get by. In spite of their poor situation, they decide to surprise the other with Christmas gifts—by giving up their most important possessions.


On Christmas eve, Della sells her beautiful knee-length hair and with the money buys a lovely pocket watch chain for her husband. Jim sells his gold watch, a family heirloom, and uses the money to buy hair accessories for his wife.

As you might have guessed, both end up buying gifts that neither of them can use.  

The Gift of the Magi—an allusion to the Wise Men who brought gifts for the new-born Jesus—is a feel-good story even if somewhat poignant and sentimental. Jim and Della discover something more priceless than expensive gifts—their love for each other. Can there be a better Christmas gift?

O. Henry reminds me of two other great storytellers, Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant. All three authors are known for their very affecting stories—about ordinary people and their destinies, their lives and relationships—which usually end with a twist. My feeling is that O. Henry was wittier of the three. There is subtle humour in this story.


I thought this was the perfect story to read and review in the spirit of Christmas and the goodness and simplicity of life. I first read it a long time ago, probably in school, as my wife reminded me. It is a true classic and very relevant in our times. 

O. Henry, who was born William Sydney Porter, first published the story as Gifts of the Magi in The New York Sunday World, December 10, 1905. Apparently, he wrote it in one of New York's oldest bars called Pete’s Tavern. A year later, it appeared in the O. Henry Anthology The Four Million. The story has been adapted to various cultural forms including film and television.

Recommended.

16 comments:

  1. This story is one of my top short stories, Prashant. I love the use of irony in it, and I do like the portrait of the young couple . Thank you for reminding me of it.

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    1. You're welcome, Margot. This is one of very few O. Henry stories I have read. I will be reading more.

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  2. Its a new one for me so I am so glad i read this review.
    Compliments of the season Prashant to you and your family.

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    1. Thank you, Mystica. A very Happy New Year to you and your family!

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  3. A wonderful story. I just reread this not long ago myself.

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    1. It is a beautiful story, Charles. Simple and uplifting.

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  4. Prashant – This is a great story. Thanks for reviewing it. I first read it in grade school and O. Henry has remained a favorite writer. By the way, Pete’s Tavern is still there. I once had a drink at the old bar.
    http://www.petestavern.com/

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    1. You're welcome, Elgin. I read O. Henry in school too and then forgot all about this wonderful storyteller. That was a nice little anecdote about Pete's Tavern. It must have inspired many over the years.

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  5. No wonder it is considered a classic - great story.

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    1. Oscar, I like reading such stories. They lift my spirits.

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  6. O. Henry was the writer who stoked my interest in the short story.

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    1. David, I will be reading more of his short stories this year.

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  7. I love this story so much, it makes me cry every time!

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    1. I know what you mean, Moira. Why can't life be good to nice people?

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  8. Although I have read this poem many times over the years, it has been a while since I thought about it. Thanks for reminding me, Prashant.

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    1. You're welcome, Tracy. This story has rekindled my interest in O. Henry's collection. He was such a gifted writer.

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