The Theme of “The Gift of the Magi”
William Sydney Porter, or O. Henry as it is widely known, is one of the most famous names in American literature. He was a master short-story writer of nearly 300 short stories. With a very inventive mind, he made plots for his stories from the commonplace things. The settings of his stories were drawn from his experience and, likewise, his characters were based on actual people he had known. In rapid-moving prose, he developed his stories imaginatively and skillfully, keeping readers wondering about the outcome, which was always a surprise. Among his short stories, The Gift of the Magi is possibly the most well-known. Its enduring appeal can be traced to the universal themes of wealth, poverty, and generosity wrapped together by the selfless love of the two main characters Jim and Della. In other words, the theme of “The Gift of the Magi” is the “Irony of life”.
To understand clearly the irony of life in “The Gift of the Magi”, we need to know the meaning of a word “irony”. So what is irony? Irony is a situation, an event, or a thing that is desirable in itself but so unexpected or ill-timed that it appears to be deliberately unacceptable or unreasonable. In “The Gift of the Magi”, “the irony of life” is presented through a story of love and sacrifice between a young couple, Jim and Della, who are poor materially but not poor spiritually: in fact, they are generous lovers and the love and care and sacrifice they show to each other is beyond doubt and beyond limit.
Firstly, the “irony of life” in “The Gift of the Magi” lies in the coincidence of Della and Jim’s thoughts and actions. “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.” Della counted it three times. On Christmas, people often give a present to their lover, their relatives, their friends… and Della wanted to do the same. Unexpectedly, her possession is only
one dollar and eighty-seven cents, she felt unhappy and confused. “She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.” Everything turned into gray in her mind. She desired to buy a Christmas present for her dear Jim. However, she could do nothing with only one dollar and eighty-seven cents. “Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliant, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its lengths.” Della decided to sell her beautiful blonde hair for 20 dollars and she felt happy with money in her hand. She sold her sole invaluable treasure to buy a chain of the watch for Jim. How about Jim? In order to buy a Christmas gift for Della, he had to do the same – sell his golden watch. They both got each other gifts with the money they had got from selling their treasures. Each of the couple in the story tries to show their love and care and sacrificed for each other through the selling of his/her own treasure to glorify the beauty of the treasure of the other with a true sense of delight and satisfaction. The gifts that they sold each had something to do with what they had got each other. Della had got Jim a medallion for his watch, while Jim had got Della beautiful comb for her hair. Each of the couple in the story feels happy with his/her thought and act of love and generosity. O. Henry skillfully invented a coincidence with unexpected plots which shows us the irony of life. “He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.” It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that Della had been prepared for. Jim got shocked because his present turned to be unacceptable and useless. “They are too nice to use at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs.” His statement seems a natural commentary on the uselessness of the gifts since their intended purpose has been ironically removed. “He drew a package from...
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