30 Stories, Day 13: The Gift of the Magi

Reading better to write better (taking notes, reporting to you, and hoping to eventually get published myself), Day 13:

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. 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.

Synopsis

Della Young has one dollar and eighty-seven cents with which to buy her beloved husband, Jim, a Christmas present. The money is the result of months and months of saving every penny she could manage on twenty dollars a week. Christmas is tomorrow.

Dejected—her dreams of something sterling and fine for her husband utterly broken—Della does the only thing there is to do: she cries.

Then, as she is drying her tears, Della sees herself in the reflection of a window and has a marvelous idea: she can sell her hair. It falls to her knees, a river of shining beauty, and is perhaps her most cherished possession—but if it will help her buy a present for Jim…

She bounds to the nearest barbershop, belonging to Madame Sofronie, and asks if Madame will buy her hair.

“Twenty dollars,” Madame replies.

Funds sufficiently increased, Della buzzes from store to store searching for a great present. Turning display after display inside out, finally she finds just the thing: a simple platinum fob chain that will go perfectly with Jim’s prize golden watch—his most treasured possession, and one which he inherited from his father and his grandfather before him.

Della is happy with her purchase, but when she gets home she becomes anxious: she won’t be able to conceal her formerly knee-length hair chopped short. She is worried her husband will be upset, or won’t find her pretty anymore.  Time will tell.

Just past seven o’clock Jim comes home for dinner. He steps inside, sees his wife and stares: an expression she can’t read coming over his face. “You cut off your hair?” he asks. Della replies she has cut and sold it; she needed the money to buy him a proper present. And boy, is he really going to like it. “You say your hair is gone?” Jim stupidly repeats.

He reaches into his coat and produces a small package. He assures Della there is no haircut that could make him like her any less—just that she should open the package and see why he reacted as he did.

Della does as instructed: inside the package is an exquisite set of tortoise-shell combs with jeweled rims. She knows they were expensive: she had been admiring them through the shop window for a long while now.

Then, since she has opened his present to her, Della produces her purchase for him. She asks to see his gold watch so she can see what it looks like with the exquisite new chain she just bought.

Jim sits on the couch and smiles. He suggests they put their presents away awhile and enjoy Christmas dinner instead. He sold his prized watch, after all, to get the money to buy the beautiful combs for her.

The final paragraph speaks of the magi—the wise men that brought gifts for the baby in the manger. But of all who gave gifts, says the narrator, the two children living in a flat were the wisest.

Favorite line

“There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.”

I just love aphorisms and that last sentence is a good one. Reminds me of Buddhism and the first of the Four Noble Truths: life is suffering.

Observations

First thought: isn’t O Henry a chocolate bar? 🙂

To business: I find this piece to have an exceptionally rare breed of narration. Check this out:

“But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.”

The narrator is third person omniscient—an arbitrary figure—but it is also one that is self-aware, and that addresses the reader as “you.” It has more layers:

“Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.”

The narrator is aware even of the quality of his/her writing and jokes about it. It almost reminds me of the narration in one of my absolute favorite children’s movies, George of the Jungle (I have always loved the quality of narration there, too!).

My one quibble with the story (and this may be my first real complaint in thirteen days of reading classic short stories) is this: the last paragraph borders on preachy. I understand that Henry wanted to tie the story into a religious context, but to me, if you have to state the point of your story at the very end, your story didn’t do its job. And Henry’s story did do its job; the selling of treasures to buy a gift for someone you love is a powerful message in itself. I think that the moral-of-the-story last paragraph actually diminished the power of that message by hitting the reader over the head with it. If I were the editor here I would axe it.

One of the very first rules of writing is Show, Don’t Tell. With this story comes an extra lesson: even if one does show, and does a doggone god job of it, one must be cautious not to underline the point of a story too much with extra explanation. Simple is best; let the story speak for itself.

Vocab

For what might be taken as a children’s story, this one sure had its share of advanced vocabulary!

imputation: a statement attributing something dishonest

parsimony: extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources. (What a great word! Am stealing!)

mendicancy: beggary

vestibule: interestingly enough, this word also appeared in Jorge Luis Borges’ “El Sur” in reference to an entrance compartment on a railroad car—but here it takes a different meaning: an antechamber or hall next to the outer door a building

meretricious: apparently attractive but having no value or integrity in reality

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6 thoughts on “30 Stories, Day 13: The Gift of the Magi

  1. Vestibule is also the entrance to a store, my bosses always referred to the entrance as such. Annoyed the heck out of me, it sounded so uppity, at least the way they used it. Can parsimony be used in today’s world though? Will the young’uns understand? I am always worried about the “aging” of the words and terminology I use, you and I are willing to look up words if we do not know them, is the average reader?

    I agree, I hate it when a book gets preachy and bashes you over the head repeatedly with the same message. It is almost like, dude, I get it, gold and money are bad, give it to Tiny Tim already…

    • Hahaha, I think I am somewhat selfish when it comes to vocabulary…if I know a suitable word, I want to use it– whether the young’uns know it or not! Dear oh dear, I will probably be a young spinster…won’t be long before I’m brandishing a dictionary at unsuspecting young readers!

      I don’t suppose I would use ‘parsimony’ conversationally, but in general my thought is this: one shouldn’t write below one’s standards.

      • I have often wished for a dictionary or thesaurus when dealing with the youth of today. *sigh* I actually dropped parsimony in a conversation yesterday. I got a high 5 from an older gentleman that was walking by and overheard it. It felt good, and my friend looked at me like I was nuts. It was great. 🙂

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