Irony is one of those concepts that took me years to really understand. The dictionary definition, “The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect” (OED), doesn’t really capture the groan-producing twist of fate that characterizes true situational irony (there are other types of irony which we won’t discuss here). A second definition, “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result,” come closer to the full meaning. More simply put, irony is a surprising and rueful reversal of events especially appropriate to the situation, like spitting into the wind. For example, the purportedly “unsinkable” Titanic’s sinking on its maiden voyage was ironic, as is the fact that Fahrenheit 451, the classic 1953 anti-censorship novel by Ray Bradbury, is among the top 100 most frequently banned books in the U.S.
Many of us were first introduced to irony in high school or college, when we read the classic short story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (1862-1910). I have always loved this story because it is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, and for that reason feels true to life. With deft concision–in only 1,800 words (6 pages)–Henry creates a meaningful situation, two well-developed and endearing characters, a relatable conflict, and a shocking resolution. Though not without its tragic side, this literary gem offers a tender and unforgettable illustration of the true meaning of Christmas.
Aside from the title’s allusion to the wise men who visited the babe in the manger—and who, the author notes, “invented the art of giving Christmas presents”—the story is entirely secular, and its author was not religious. It was first published in the December, 1905 issue of the New York Sunday World Magazine, and anthologized the following year in his Four Million collection. ‘Four million’ is a reference to New York’s ‘hoi polloi’, whom he wished to introduce to the supposed four hundred members of the wealthy New York elite, who were the only ones worth knowing according to one society leader. Hoi polloi, by the way, meant “the many” in ancient Greek—an omission from last month’s Literary Corner column—and later came to refer to the common people or lower classes.
The story concerns a young couple, Della and Jim Young (the choice of name is not accidental), whom we encounter on Christmas Eve eking out a poor existence in a shabby $8/week flat in New York City. “She looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard” pretty much sums up their situation. But this gray backdrop only allows the light of their love for each other to shine more brightly. The depth of that love is demonstrated over the course of the story as each sacrifices his/her most precious possession in order to buy the other the kind of Christmas present they believe s/he deserves. But at the much-anticipated moment of exchanging gifts, they discover that the treasure for which they had each bought a rich accessory has been sold and is now gone, sacrificed on the other’s behalf. I don’t want to give away the details, but the reader simultaneously weeps and rejoices with the “two foolish children…who unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures in their house.” The irony is that the delighted reaction each expects from their loved one at the moment of presentation turns instead to mutual horror at the realization that the gift has, in the blink of an eye, become useless—in other words, the outcome is the opposite of what they (and the reader) expected. I hope you will seek out a copy of this quick and inspiring read in any collection of O. Henry stories, of which JMRL has numerous editions, or online in the public domain. The “one dollar and eighty seven cents” with which the story famously opens would be worth, according to the inflation calculator, about $45 today.
O. Henry was the pseudonym of William Sidney Porter, born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. His wide-ranging and adventurous life included working on a ranch in Texas; eloping in his early 20s with the woman who provided the model for the character of Della; becoming the subject of accusations of embezzlement, which were never actually proven, while working at a bank to support his family; establishing and writing his own humor magazine, The Rolling Stone, at age 32; fleeing to the Honduras to avoid being arrested, and eventually returning to spend three years in the Ohio State Penitentiary. A jail custodian named Orrin Henry may have inspired his pen name, which he later adopted to conceal the stigma of being a convict.
All of these varied experiences provided source material for his writing, which included many Western stories, crime stories based on people he had known in prison, humorous sketches, and magazine stories about the lives of the common people of New York City, which he dearly loved. Between 1899 and his death in 1910, Henry turned out over 250 short stories; he came up with the famed Cisco Kid, and the popular play “Alias Jimmy Valentine” was based on one of his stories. He perfected the art of the ironic twist or surprise ending, which became the hallmark of what is still known as the O. Henry style. “In capturing the paradoxical and irrational nature of life [Henry] was actually more realistic than many writers of his generation (Contemporary Authors Online in Gale’s Literature Resource Center).” His stories celebrated democracy by focusing on the little guy, and “in his hands the short story became an organ of social consciousness,” laying the groundwork for later writers such as John Steinbeck and William Saroyan. “Magi” and other oft-anthologized stories “are gems of their kind,” according to Bennett Cerf and Van Cartmell in the Modern Library edition of The Best Stories of O. Henry (1994): “mellow, humorous, ironic, ingenious, and shot through with…human interest.” By the time of his death at age 48, he was the most popular short story writer in the world, and his work has been translated into over twelve languages.
“The Gift of the Magi” is a simple story told with genuine artistry. It exemplifies the true meaning of Christmas: sacrifice for those we love more than ourselves. The value of the material gift is insignificant beside the selfless motive behind it. “…Let it be said,” Henry reflects in conclusion, “that of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest…. They are the magi.” And by extension, the apparently useless gifts are sacred because given in a spirit of love and sacrifice. So that’s a double irony! Wishing you a holiday full of love, laughter, and good literature.