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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30 Stories, Day 8: Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

Now I can finally say I’ve read some Tolstoy. Wahoo! …Just War & Peace left to knock out…no big…

Here is day 8 of my whirlwind bedtime adventure to read 30 short stories in 30 days (…and hope that some of it will rub off in my own writing):

“Three Questions” by Leo Tolstoy

“It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

…He had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who would teach him. And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.”

Synopsis

As the title and excerpt suggest, this is the story of a king who seeks the answer to three questions which he feels will help him be the master of all his affairs. He puts out the word and offers great riches to anyone who can provide satisfactory answers to his questions (see paraphrased below):

  1. When is the best time to do each thing?
  2. Who are the most important people to work with?
  3. What is most important to do?

People come from far and wide to answer the king’s questions, but there is a great degree of discord among the answers. Discontented at the scattered and unconvincing replies, the king sets out to seek the answers himself by visiting a wise old hermit.

This hermit will only see commoners, so the king is careful to dress in plain clothes and leave his horse and his body guard at some distance from the hut. When the king reaches the hermit’s home he finds him sitting in his front yard, digging. He approaches and asks his questions.

The hermit hears but does not answer; he merely continues digging. The king, seeing that the man is tired, offers to take the spade and dig awhile in his place.

When the king has dug and dug and has dug so much that he can dig no more, he puts down the spade and repeats his questions. Then, before the hermit can answer, somebody comes running out of the wood towards the hermit’s hut.

It is a man holding his stomach, wounded and bleeding. He stumbles up to the hut and falls before the hermit and the king, who take him in and dresses his wounds. The blood does not stop flowing for a long time, so the king must constantly wash the bandages and redress the wound, wash the bandages and redress the wound.

The king, tired from his travels and the laborious garden work, falls asleep at the side of the wounded man’s bed.

When he awakes the wounded man is staring at him. The man is a stranger to the king, but the king is not a stranger to the man. He begs forgiveness, and the king says he has nothing to pardon him for. The stranger explains: he had been on a mission to avenge his brother (whom the king had had executed) and heard that the king had come to visit the hermit, alone. He came after the king but found his guard instead, and the guard wounded him to his present state. Then, fate of fates, the king himself took him in and tended his wounds. He is in the king’s debt, he says, and he and his sons will gladly be his servants for the rest of their days.  The king forgives the man and promises to send his own physician to attend him, as well as to restore his brother’s property which was seized.

Finally the king approaches the hermit and asks his questions a final time. The hermit replies that he has been shown his answers: (spoiler Alert: stop reading if you want the morals to be a surprise!)

  1. the most important time is the present, because it is the only time over which we have any control
  2. the most necessary person or persons are present company and
  3. the most important of all affairs is to do your present company good.

I highly recommend reading at least the last paragraph of the story to see those answers in their whole context as the hermit presents them.

Favorite line:

“Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”

Observations

Not a single word out of place here. Everything reads easily: is simple, flows unburdened by unnecessary descriptions or flashy adjectives and adverbs. The story is short and to the point, and I know if I ever attempt to write any fables or instructive tales (for they are some of my favorite stories) I will be revisiting this as an example.

In the vein of simplicity, there was also no difficult or extraordinary vocabulary. The point of tales such as this is not to be whimsical or eloquent; it is to communicate, and most often to communicate to an audience composed of or including children. Using language which is accessible to all ages is not just wise but necessary if you want all ages to be receptive to your story.

Finally, Three Questions is different from one of my deepest impressions of fables, which is that usually the characters are animals. In this story the subjects are human through and through—but it is still effective. [Might have to do a separate post sometime in the future on what makes a good fable.] Perhaps a parable is a more accurate description. Actually, although only a short story, the style and telling of this piece reminded me a bit of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. All I know is, after reading this I feel less intimidated and more excited to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina!

Vocab

None; this story is purposefully simple.

Hasta mañana.

30 Stories, Day 6: The Door

On the sixth day of 30 Short Stories, my anthology gave to me…a wonderfully nonsensical story by a renowned grammar nazi!

(Apologies for the shabby rhyme. Ahem:)

“The Door” by E.B. White

“More and more (he kept saying) I am confronted by a problem which is incapable of solution (for this time, even if I chose the right door, there would be no food behind it) and that is what madness is, and things seeming different from what they are.”

Synopsis

An unnamed narrator seeks a way forward through a confused description of non-doors (see: “One was an opening that wasn’t a door, the other a wall that wasn’t an opening”).

The narrator remembers lab rats: ones that have been trained to jump at a card with a circle on it for food. Those rats, he remembered, were tricked one day: a card was put in a flat place—one that did not give way to food—and the rodents went mad, confused, and then totally passive. He compares himself to the rats; says he doesn’t know which card to jump at.

His life, he says, has been full of situations without solution. Doors are compared to objects; goals; stages of life. “The door with the girl on it,” is one. Home (“householder’s detail”) is another.

The problem is that the doors keep changing. “It is inevitable that they will keep changing the doors on you…because that is what they are for.”

Favorite line

“You wouldn’t want me, standing here, to tell you, would you, about my friend the poet (deceased) who said, “My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name”? (It had the circle on it.)”

Observations

I absolutely love the way this story is written. No, it isn’t clear, but yes, it flows; no, it isn’t coherent, but yes, it makes sense, and resonates; it flows and swells along, pulling back and forth, a pendulum, tick tock, back and forth, a maddened maze unto itself, a vehicle for the message. “The medium is the message,” it has been said. Nowhere do I find that to be truer than with this story.

This was an especially pleasant surprise given that the author is E.B. White—E.B. White of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I was expecting the story to be something very cut and dry; something dull, flat, and grammatically sound. I daresay it was grammatically sound (at least, all the commas were in the right places), but that did not make it any less unstable and desperate and compelling. I can tell right now: this is one I will read again. This one has something to teach.

There is only one line of spoken dialogue in this story: “Here you have the maximum of openness in a small room.” It is unclear to me what this (the maximum openness, or the small room) is, but the ambiguity allows for many interpretations: is this a metaphor for all of the possibilities in one’s life? The choices, or “jumps” we make within a maze? (For some reason, on initial reading I thought of a realtor; and then a mental patient.)

The ambiguity/lack of clarity in this story are unique and poignant and I think done with great delicacy. Some readers would be impatient or upset with not having a clear idea of what’s going on, but that is the great skill of this story: it moves in such a way that treads that thin line, that moves with mastery, that pulls one through and after it with strange allure so that even though it is less than lucid our attention does not waver.

Vocab

All these words are fictional scientific terms that were designed for the sake of the story:

tex, koid, oid, duroid, sani, thrutex

Another lesson: it’s okay (sometimes even beneficial) to create new words for the sake of your story! Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

Une autre histoire demain…