Ryan Davis offers a debunking interpretation of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” at 200ProofLiberals. After summarizing the story, he spoils the ending, then tells us why he doesn’t “buy” the story’s implications (so yes, spoiler alert below the fold).
The story wants you think this is all great. It ends this way:
“I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise.”
I’m not buying it. I think we feel inspired by the story only when we view the characters as mere allegorical place holders. Sure, we don’t care about Della’s precious hair or Jim’s old watch, so it seems nice enough to us that they ditched their respective vanities in a well-intentioned mix-up. But we’re told that they really did care about those things. If we believed that they really had given up their sole prized possessions, we would have to think of that as at least a medium-sized personal tragedy. Worse still, neither gets anything out of the other’s heroism. If we take Della and Jim seriously, this is just plain bad.
The story tells us that Della and Jim really cared about those things, but also implies that they cared less about them than they cared about each other. A philosopher unable to comprehend or appreciate this not-terribly-complicated set of thoughts has no business reading O. Henry, much less offering cringe-level interpretations of O. Henry’s work for public consumption.
Davis doesn’t “buy” the story’s implications. Well, maybe they weren’t for sale. And maybe a modest exercise of reading comprehension and common sense might have suggested that even if all that Jim and Della wanted was a watch-chain and a set of combs, respectively, Jim does have the watch-chain he wanted, and Della’s hair will eventually grow back. Davis: “Neither gets anything out of the other’s heroism.” HFS. Not to mention that she made him dinner.
Philosophers since Plato have long wanted to throw the artists out of the polis. With philosophical commentary like this on offer, I can see why the artists might want to return the favor.