“The Gift of the Magi” is a short story written by the American writer O. Henry (1862 – 1910) first published in December 1905. This version was illustrated by the great Irish illustrator P. J. Lynch.
This is a timeless story about love and what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of love, and at this time of year, it is an affirmation that the important things in life are not material possessions but those we hold dear.
Jim and Della are a newlywed couple who live in a rented flat in New York City surviving on very low income and struggling to make ends meet. At Christmas, Della counts the pennies she was able to save for Jim’s present: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all…Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents…There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl”.
In desperation, Della decides to sell her most precious possession, her beautiful long hair, which could have been the envy of Queen of Sheba herself! With $20 she got for her hair, she buys Jim a platinum pocket-watch chain for his gold watch that has been his father’s and grandfather’s – another treasured possession of their family.
On the same day, Jim sells his gold watch to buy a set of exquisitely beautiful and very expensive hair combs that Della has always admired but never hoped to possess. When the two exchange gifts, stunned at first, they realise that the most beautiful gift of all is their love and devotion for each other. ‘Let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest… They are the Magi”, concludes the author. The Magi refers to the wise men who travelled to Bethlehem to bring gifts to baby Jesus in the manger.
This is a story of dramatic irony whose prose challenges with wordy lengthy sentences and some old-fashioned turn of phrase, characteristic of the period it was written. P J Lynch’s gentle sepia-toned illustrations evoke warmth and love itself and truly bring this story to life; the depiction of various New York city surroundings, the apartment’s interior and period fashion immerses the reader into the atmosphere of New York of the early 20th c.
P.J. has an uncanny ability to instantly communicate the emotion of a scene within a single image by the way he poses his characters and captures the perfect expression to match the text. For example when Jim arrives home to see Della with short hair. They are both positioned at opposite ends of the page spread staring at each other with the text separating them, “Jim stopped inside the door. He was as quiet as a hunting dog when it is near a bird. His eyes looked strangely at Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not understand.”
O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter, was a master of short stories famous for their wry humour and surprising plot twist, which have earned him a place as one of the best-loved American writers. To honour his contribution to literature, in 1919 the American Society of Arts and Sciences instituted the annual O. Henry Award, which is given to the authors of short stories of exceptional merit.
P. J. Lynch is the illustrator of many acclaimed books. I have already reviewed “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” (click here to read it), for which P. J. Lynch received the Kate Greenaway medal in 1995. He was the recipient of that prestigious award again in 1997 for “When Jessie Came Across the Sea”. About “The Gift of the Magi” he said: “This is a story I always wanted to illustrate, particularly after I first visited New York and saw streets there that had hardly changed since O. Henry’s times. What really attracted me to it though, was the very real relationship of Della and Jim, which is at its heart”.
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