The richness of art is that it allows for many approaches. O. Henry was one of the most important American writers and continually fused his culture into his woks, providing a sentimental slice of American life. However, being Russian, Boris Eichenbaum in his essay “O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story” approaches the impact of this great writer through other means, principally through the analysis of his stories’ structure. Even though the plot of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is a classical quest, its finale ironically turns this convention on its head. In this story, one of O. Henry’s most famous and important, one may see many of the motifs that Eichenbaum identifies as being characteristic of the writer’s literature, such as an important surprise ending and the use of irony. However, some of this story’s devices counter the theorist’s generalizations, especially the psychological characterizations that are in this specific story.
The plot mainspring of the story is that a woman feels compelled to buy her beloved husband a gift for Christmas, characterizing it as a quest plot. Within this categorization, the climax of the story ought to be when the protagonist arrives at the end point or reaches what he or she aimed. The narrator tells the story of the anxiety that Della, the protagonist and wife of the story, feels as she realizes that she does not count with sufficient money to buy an adequate gift for her husband; thus, one expects that the exchange of gifts will be the blissful highlight of the tale. “The short story, on the contrary, gravitates expressly toward the maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded it” (Eichenbaum 232). In “The Gift of the Magi”, the protagonist decides to cut and sell her coveted hair so that she may buy an adequate present for her husband; one also imagines that he is going through the same ordeal. However, when he goes to give his wife the gift, he finds that it is useless, as it was fit for her most prized possession: her hair. Similarly, her husband has sold his watch, rendering her gift for it worthless as well. Thus, the mainspring is foiled, as the ironic turn of events ends up rendering the wife’s sacrifice and fret as insignificant.
However, the intense and ironic climax is followed by an epilogue, which also modifies the role of the mainspring in “The Gift of the Magi”. While both gifts are rendered useless, the narrator turns the story again in the last paragraph of the story, which serves as an epilogue, stating that “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” (Henry). Again, the mainspring of the story is positioned differently, as it complicates what the mainspring actually is: love itself or the fret that it caused. The latter having already been presented and examined, the story proceeds to propose that what actually matters is the former. As the gift exchange implied a sacrifice and proved that they both intensely loved each other, this source of action was actually realized. This can again be seen as ironic, as the commentary that this addition to the text implies, it is an ironic turn even after the first change of events that happened, as expected, in the story’s climax.
Nevertheless, some of the aspects of the story do not correspond to those generalized by Eichenbaum, especially its rich psychological characterization. O. Henry continuously submerges the reader into the character’s worrying mind, by means of direct expressions of it, small sentences, lively slight details, etc. “There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it” (Henry). Being in a loving relationship and having to sacrifice material objects for it is a commonplace idea. However, the characters are so well-developed that one believes that this could be an actual, real love story. The picturesque characters respond to the dramatic turn of events very idiosyncratically: while Della emits “an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails” (Henry), her husband, Jim, becomes almost paralyzed with astonishment.
As one can see, while Boris Eichenbaum’s theory helps analyze the structure of O. Henry’s “The Story of the Magi”, it leaves out some important elements that characterize this particular story. The theorist proposes that the mainspring of the short story is what provokes the resolution of the tension made in the tale. However, as the same theorist proposes, O. Henry constantly uses irony in his tales; the conventional use of a mainspring is both mocked and overturned in the important climax and the epilogue, respectively. Nevertheless, the theorist’s conventions and generalizations fall short in this specific short story, as the characters are psychologically well-developed, which is augmented by the writer’s style. As one can see, part of the richness of pieces of art is the multiplicity of interpretations that may be made of it. The singularity that each work entails both expresses an artist’s personality and intentions, yet is also mysterious enough to allow readers to manifest what they believe.
Eichenbaum, Boris M. “O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story”. Reading in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Eds. Ladislav Matejka and Krustuna Pomoroska., Champaign, IL, Dublin and London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002. 227-270. Print.
Henry, O. “The Gift of the Magi”. Audible. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.