What Irony Is Used in "The Gift of the Magi"?

In a story, irony occurs when a situation doesn’t turn out as expected, as in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” Authors use irony to add an element of humor into their works, to emphasize the moral of a story or to make an audience ponder the underlying meaning of what a character said, according to the Author’s Craft website. The irony that Henry presents in his short story teaches the reader about sacrifice and love.

Summary of the Story

In “The Gift of the Magi,” Jim and Della Dillingham Young are a young couple of modest means. They have two prized possessions: Jim’s pocket watch, which previously belonged to his father and grandfather, and Della’s long hair. On Christmas Eve, the couple only had $1.87 to spend on gifts for each other. Henry explains at the end of the short story that they sacrificed the greatest treasures that they owned so they could purchase material possessions. The sacrifice, however, led to the understanding that you cannot put a price on love, and that the true gift that the couple received was the wisdom to realize this concept and acknowledge each other’s sacrifices.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when a character says something that contrasts with literal meaning of his words, or says something that doesn’t align with a particular situation. This type of irony can come in the form of sarcasm, overstatements or understatements, according to Kansas State University. In “The Gift of the Magi,” Henry uses verbal irony after revealing that the Dillingham Youngs only had $1.87 for gifts: “There was clearly nothing 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.” This passage is ironic as it shows Della feeling sorry for herself and her financial predicament even though not having much money for a gift, in reality, is not that tragic. After Della sells her hair to buy Jim’s present, Henry writes, “She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends -- a mammoth task.” Henry is being sarcastic when he says that act of charitable love has consequences that are hard to overcome and suggests that shorter hair is hard to style.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when a reader knows more about a situation than a character in a story, making a situation suspenseful or humorous. In the “Gift of the Magi,” dramatic irony occurs when Della opens the gift from Jim, a set of tortoise shell combs, and briefly forgets that her hair isn’t long enough to wear them. Dramatic irony may also occur if a reader guesses in advance that Jim sold his watch to buy the coveted combs.

Situational Irony

Situational irony occurs when there’s an unexpected outcome in a story. An example is when Jim comes home from work and sees Della’s short hair. The fact that he purchased hair combs for Della demonstrates that he didn’t expect her to sell her hair. The situation is also ironic for Della because she wanted a pair of tortoise shell combs, but didn’t expect to receive them as a gift. Another example of situational irony is when Jim unexpectedly receives the fob that Della gave him for his watch, but Della didn’t know that he sold it. Henry adds a twist toward the end of the story when Jim says to Della, “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. And now suppose you put the chops on." Instead of getting upset about the gifts that they can’t use, which a reader might expect, Jim is happy to move past the situation and eat dinner. In the last paragraph of the story, Henry points out that the sacrifices that Jim and Della made for each other were more valuable than the gifts themselves.

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