The Gift of the Magi


O. Henry

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The Gift of the Magi: Irony 2 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Useless Gifts:

Jim and Della's useless gifts are examples of situational irony, because the results of their gift-giving are the opposite of what's expected. When Della opens Jim's gift, she finds the hair combs she's coveted for a long time:

Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

Though Della's desire for the combs hasn't been mentioned before this point in the story, Della's hair certainly has. The beautiful long hair was Della's only prized possession, and by all indications in the story, she was rightfully proud of it. However, hours before Jim brought her the combs, Della cut and sold her hair in order to afford Jim's gift. No matter how beautiful the combs are, they have no practical value unless and until Della's hair grows back.

Della takes comfort in the fact that she will be able to wear the combs again someday. But when she shows Jim the watch chain she got him—paid for with her shorn hair—he doesn't react the way she expected:

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. [...] Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it." [...]

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. [...] I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs."

Jim responds matter-of-factly that Della's gift is useless and might as well be put away for the time being, explaining that he no longer owns a watch to display; he sold it in order to afford the combs that Della can't use, either. This time, the disappointment is greater: while Della's hair will realistically grow back, allowing her to use the combs, Jim will probably never own a watch he'd value as highly as the heirloom watch—so the chain will probably stay tucked away.

The irony serves to highlight Jim and Della's love for each other. The audience would expect that after sacrificing her hair, Della would have the satisfaction of giving Jim a gift he'd cherish, and that Jim would respond with a comparable treasure. In a sense, that's what happens; but readers' expectations are undermined by the fact that the two gifts basically cancel each other out. What they've both bought at great cost ends up being useless.

There's an additional irony in the fact that although Jim and Della both purchased gifts that would serve as eye-catching accessories, their willingness to sacrifice for one another—reflecting their internal characters—ends up being the real gift. That mutual sacrifice means that the couple's few material riches—Jim's prized heirloom watch and Della's hair—are gone; they've even gone to waste. All that's left, the story suggests, is the couple's enduring love for one another, which can't be measured in money or possessions. The ironic overturning of expectations highlights the true strength of the couple's marriage.

Explanation and Analysis—Too Nice to Use:

After Della shows Jim the watch chain she's bought him and asks for his watch, he responds with a smile and an ironic comment:

"Dell [...] let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs."

When a character uses verbal irony, they say the opposite of what they really mean. In this case, Jim doesn't really mean that the gifts—the watch chain and the combs he's bought Della—are "too nice to use." Rather, the gifts are useless: Jim can't use the watch chain because he sold his watch in order to buy Della hair combs, and Della can't use the hair combs because she cut and sold her hair in order to buy the watch chain.

Jim's lighthearted remark is an understatement—a subcategory of verbal irony in which the speaker downplays a situation in order to highlight its magnitude. Della knows perfectly well that Jim doesn't mean these words literally; that is, there won't come a point when the gifts won't be "too nice" for everyday use. Rather, Jim is downplaying the harsh truth that they've both paid dearly for gifts that, because of that very generosity, neither of them can use at all. (Technically, Della could use the hair combs someday, once her hair grows out again. But given the combs' associations, it's a safe bet that she won't want to use them; it's at least as unlikely as the possibility that Jim will be able to afford another gold watch someday.)

This instance of verbal irony also reinforces Jim's mild-mannered character. Instead of reacting to the wasted gifts with anger or despair, he responds with mild humor. This doesn't mean he doesn't find the situation upsetting at all, but that he seems to be capable of putting things in perspective, and of trying to comfort the more emotional Della by defusing the tension.

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