Last Updated 11 Jan 2023

Human Emotions in “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief”

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Henry's multitude of short stories are still read and enjoyed almost as much today as when they were first published. While he had done some writing before, it was during his three-year incarceration in the Columbus, Ohio Penitentiary for fraud that he began to write seriously. (O. Henry vi) O. Henry was an observer of human nature "who liked to walk about the city at night, studying faces and inventing stories about them." (x) Many of this prolific writer's short stories are marked by a surprise ending and tend to focus on human emotions that most readers can identify with.

Both "The gift of the Magi" and "The ransom of red chief" illustrate his penchant for the "twist ending", his ability to portray the vast array of our human emotions including our ties to money and what they cause us to do. "He wrote of real people, with real problems" and brought "tender understanding to his portraits of life" (Toni Shiffman p.4)

"The Gift of the Magi" is an example of his insight into what one couple does for love in the face of financial destitution. Henry describes the little money they do have as "Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied." emphasizing the shame-filled scraping it took to get what little money they did have, which is something many new couples throughout time have struggled with. (O. Henry 1) He reinforces her desperation when he writes, "Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas." (1) Most readers are able to identify with her situation having been there themselves at one time or another.

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In this timeless Christmas story, a couple of young married people want to provide a gift for each other that expresses their deep love for one another. With money being scarce, they each sacrifice that which is dearest to them in order to purchase a present worthy of the other. The female character, Della, has not a thing of value but her below knee length, beautiful hair. Della decides to sell her precious hair to buy her husband Jim a Christmas gift.

Henry pulls at the reader's heartstrings while emphasizing the pride she takes in her hair and the great cost she pays in her decision to sell it when he writes, "Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knees and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet." (O. Henry 3)

Jim also wants to show his love for Della. He decides to sell the only thing he holds of value to buy his young wife a Christmas gift: a gold watch that has been handed down in his family for generations.

Henry adds his famous twist ending when the two meet in the evening to exchange gifts. When the young husband comes home and sees his wife's shorn head, he doesn't know what to think. "He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face." (O. Henry 5) The reader is let in on Jim's odd reaction when Della opens her gift from Jim. It is a set of combs for Della's gorgeous long hair that she had been yearning for. Moreover, what was Della's gift for Jim? A chain for the gold watch in which he took so much pride. O. Henry manages in this simple story to touch our hearts as well as give us a surprise ending.

In the "Ransom of Red Chief", O. Henry again sheds the light on human nature, and our binding tie to money, but in a completely different way. Using his "humorous, energetic style" (Kirjasto p. 6) in this story, two bumbling bandits are in need of two thousand dollars in order to pull off a fraudulent scheme, which will net them a large amount of money. They put their heads together and come up with a plan to kidnap the ten-year-old son of a rich, prominent citizen. The author quickly shows us the nature of this child when the boy pegs one of the bandits in the eye with a piece of brick in answer to "Hey, little boy! .. Would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?" He also clarifies the criminals' nature when the bandit who was on the receiving end of the brick responds with "That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars". (O. Henry 189)

During the story, O. Henry gives his readers a character they can identify with, or at least have had experience with. The boy the bandits have kidnapped is a child of the like most people have met at some time in their lives. He is active, talkative, and has a short attention p. Henry illustrates this when after dinner with the bandits, the boy states; "I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet 'possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot's aunt's speckled hen's eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies." (190)

Throughout his stay with the kidnappers, the boy terrorizes them to the point that the reader begins to feel sorry for them. One of the criminals is so afraid of the kid that he begs his partner not to leave him alone very long with him when his partner leaves to deliver the ransom note demanding the desired two thousand dollars from the rich father. (195) This feeling of trepidation is universal to all that have had to deal with a difficult child.

O Henry again adds his signature twist at the end when the father responds with his own note instead of the expected two thousand dollars. It states in part, "I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands." (O Henry 199) After reading the note one of the terrorized bandits says to the other "Sam, what's two hundred and fifty dollars, after all? We've got the money. One more night of this kid will send me to a bed in Bedlam" (200)

These two short stories, while very different in their tone, both give excellent examples of Henry's way of using a "twist of plot which turns on an ironic or coincidental circumstance." (Kirjasto) Both also appeal to our common human experiences. While the surprise ending in the "Gift of the Magi" touches our hearts tenderly, O. Henry also reaches us when the tables are turned in the "Ransom of Red Chief." We are filled with mirthful laughter over the kidnappers having to pay to return their victim. This ability to draw the readers in and give them something to identify with is what has made O. Henry's works some of the most popular over the decades.

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