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The Last Leaf - O'Henry - Analysis

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The Last Leaf - O'Henry - Analysis


O. Henry has been recognized among the greatest American authors by his great devotion to American literature. With the huge and unique collection of short stories, he is deserved to be called “one of the greatest masters of modern literature", said Stephen Leacock. Nearly 200 short stories published have gained the notice of the public as well as created the lasting popularity of O Henry’s literary style. However, if having to rank all of his works, the writers of this essay would choose “The Gift of the Magi”, an unforgettable masterpiece about Christmas, as the best story. One century has passed by but the story still sticks in reader’s mind as a crystal symbol of self-sacrifice in love. Without complicated plot or characters, it is like a fairy tale in modern time, which has revealed the fundamental value in ordinary family life. Catching the attention of the literary scholars with much critical analysis, however, it is still regarded as one the best Christmas stories in all the times. To help the readers get the implied ideas, the essay is written to give a deep analysis of the story in different aspects (both literary content and form).


William Sydney Porter, whose pen name was O.Henry, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. Before throwing himself in literature, he had a troubled life. His mother died when he was 3, and his father had a serious problem with alcoholism. At the age of fifteen he left school and then had a number of jobs. In 1887, he married Athol Estes Roach but the happiness did not last long when his wife died ten years later. His life was even worst when he was found guilty of embezzling money in 1897 and sentenced to five years in prison. After being released, he moved to New York and became a great short-story writer. In 1906, he published the second collection, “The four million”, including “the Gift of the Magi”. It is said that these unforgettable experiences had inspired him to create such a unique and wonderful collection of masterpieces.

By the carefully observation and deep compassion, O Henry has created “the Gift of the Magi”, a remarkable story about devotion and sacrifice in an unselfish love. Many readers think it is the special style of a typical representative of realism that brought the success to this story. The story was made in form of a tale, which was popular in both commercial and critical works at that time. We also see the important features of realism such as ordinary characters (poor working-class people in particular), simple plot, realistic details. Besides the significant things, there are a humorous tone and surprising endings of O Henry, a unique short-story author. Therefore, “The gift of the Magi” is the successful representative for not only O Henry’s career but also the whole American literary period – period of realism.

Moreover, the story, until now, still remains one of the best Christmas stories in all the times. Perhaps, it was because this story has captured successfully the spirit of the season, Christmas. In the Western countries, Christmas Eve is regarded as the best time of the year, time for every one to gather and share their love. And it is also the time the couple in the story finding the meaning of Christmas through their gifts. The tale was placed into their one-room apartment, third-floor walk-up in a poor New York street. They are so poor that they even hardly afford to buy each other a Christmas present. However, in the length of the story, what we feel is not the disillusion or despair but instead; it is hope, warmth and happiness. The story reminds us what the real meaning of Christmas is: love, connection, caring and nurture, which people sometimes forget due to the busy life.


“The gift of the Magi’s plot is very straightforward and easy to follow. It has no foreshadowing that you could really see. The story opens with a scene which is full of Christmas Eve air. At the beginning, the author brought a gloomy image of the bad living condition of the couple – Della and James. Della really wants to give James a Christmas present but she only has one dollar and eighty seven cents. Then she sees herself in the mirror and has a solution for this problem. She sells her beautiful long hair, her most precious possession, to get twenty dollars. Finally, she decides to buy a golden chain for James' watch. However, she is still worried about her husband’s response when seeing her hair cut. James comes home and is shocked but his emotion is none of what Della has predicted. Then Della gives him the present and wonderfully, Jim also gives her a present. As the reader by now suspects and as the story confirms, Jim had sold his pocket watch to buy the combs. However, like the three wise men of long ago, Della and Jim had given perfect gifts.

The first rising action happens when Della looks into a mirror. Let’s hear what O Henry describes: “Her eyes were shinning brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds”. By this, we know she has found an idea for her awkward situation. But what exactly the idea supposes to be? What is she thinking of? Is it a pleasure in her brilliantly eyes, a worrying in her pale face or both? Many questions raised in the readers’ minds. Things are gradually revealed: Della is thinking of cutting and selling her beautiful hair to buy a present for her husband. However, the key here is her beautiful hair, her most valuable possession. She is thinking of scarifying her pride just to buy the Christmas present for “her Jim”. Every question now has its perfect answer. The great sacrifice with just twenty seconds for worrying can only happen to such women like Della, who love her husband more than herself.

The second rising happens when the husband comes back home. After Della has decided to give up her hair, readers are now pulsating with waiting for her husband’s attitude. As the description of O Henry, Della’s hair is very long, straight, burnished and silky. From this detail, we would understand how James loves her beautiful hair. So, what would be his respond if seeing her haircut? Would what she is afraid of come true? Things were even more confusing when seeing his respond: “It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for”. None of possible responds even the readers could imagine. Instead, he only stares. The readers now taste her anxiety and continue to wait what would happen next.

The climax occurs when Della and Jim open their gifts. It is when the twist



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