Closer Readings Commentary

Opening “The Gift of the Magi” for the Classroom

“… Magi, his most famous story, is the American answer to A Christmas Carol, only supplanted in the last generation by It’s A Wonderful Life, a film whose debt to O. Henry is apparent.”—Drew Johnson, “O. Henry’s Afterlife: Thoughts and Ephemera”

December is the perfect time of year to introduce your students to “The Gift of the Magi.” This classic short story with its message of what giving and receiving truly means is a universal theme permeating holiday literature. William Sydney Porter was a beloved early 20th century author who wrote under the pen name, O. Henry and became known as the “Master of the Short Story.” “The Gift of the Magi” remains his most popular work.

This delightful chestnut rolled out each Christmas now also appears on the list of Common Core State Standard English Language Arts exemplar texts for grades 9–10 (Appendix B.) In addition to its tried-and-true entertainment value, the longstanding seasonal favorite can be aligned with this Anchor Standard for Reading: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Close reading

EDSITEment has developed a new student interactive Launchpad: “A Gift of the Magi”: A Common Core exemplar” with excerpts from the original text to guide English Language Arts students through an independent close reading of the story. The resource includes selected websites they can use to glean necessary background information on references within the text and a series of optional writing activities. “The Gift of the Magi,” is also available as an electronic text via the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for Liberal Arts.

In this Christmas tale the main character, Della, longs to buy a special gift for her husband, Jim, but is hampered by her meager savings of less than two dollars. With love trumping vanity, Della sells her glorious, waist-long hair for twenty dollars so that she can buy Jim’s present: a chain for his prized heirloom watch. O. Henry, famous for his “surprise” endings, concludes with a finale rich in situational irony sure to confound your students.

Writing activities

After unlocking the central themes and ideas in the text, students can try their hand at three expository and creative writing activities that directly align with the following CCSS Writing Standards:

  • Write a persuasive essay that discusses which partner makes the greater sacrifice in this story: Della selling her hair or Jim selling his watch? (Or, if they are equal sacrifices, make an argument for one position or the other using evidence from the text.) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
  • Choose one of several themes in “The Gift of the Magi” that are expressed in dichotomies and write an explanatory essay using evidence from the text to show how the author makes a case for the prevalence of one side of a theme over the other. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
  • Consider why O. Henry told the story from a female perspective, then compose an alternate story from Jim’s point of view. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3

Gift-giving traditions

EDSITEment’s popular feature The Gift of Holiday Traditions: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas expands the gift-giving theme O. Henry encapsulates in his ironic tale. The annual ritual of exchanging presents is certainly a holiday tradition in many families, and almost everyone can relate to the difficulty of finding that special gift for a loved one. The practice of gift-giving reverberates through holiday narratives of world literature and through the secular and religious customs of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.