A Literary Analysis of Exploring Irony and Humor in The gift of the magi by O Henry
Irony is a method used to express the opposite of what is meant; therefore, ironic statements cannot be understood without rejecting their apparent sense. Humor begins with the perception of irony or of some other inconsistency strong enough to cause confusion or tension. When this is realized and the tension is gone this often results in a smile or in laughter; the inner feeling is of sympathetic joy or of playfulness. Things that are thus perceived and the reactions to that perception are considered comical. Irony and humor do not always go hand in had, there are a lot of ironic situations where humor does not play a role. In fact most situations with irony have little to no humor. The same goes for humor, irony is not always used to convey humor nor is it necessary. O. Henry and Alice Walker both use irony and humor in The gift of the Magi and Everyday use. Some types of humor used in these short stories are surprise, sarcasm. Alice Walker and O. Henry both chose to use cosmic irony in their short stories because it helps them get their message across.
Surprise elements are always found in literature by creating suspense and sometimes giving an unexpected end to a situation. Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. (O. Henry 35). O. Henry chooses to use surprise as a type of humor in this situation, because it is the best way to get his point across. Jim is completely surprised to see that Della has cut off her hair. The audience knows this because we know that the gift Jim bought her is exclusively for Dellas hair. This situation is very humorous and O. Henry does this by giving an unexpected end to this situation. O. Henry used humor here to draw his audiences attention to Jims personality. By doing so the audience sees Jim as a wonderful guy with a great personality and a positive outlook on life. He is able to get all this information across to his audience with the use of surprise humor. O. Henry, pseudonym for William Sydney Porter, reached great fame in the first decade of the twentieth century as a writer of some 300 short stories. They are known for their pervasive sense of humor, their quick, chatty beginnings, their confidential narrator, and, of course, their inclusion of one of several types of surprise endings (Korb). O. Henrys stories were very famous for their sense of humor. Contrastingly, Alice Walker uses a different approach when she uses humor, she too uses the element of surprise, but in a very different way. “The truth is,” I said, “I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas” (Walker 460). Mama surprises Dee by telling her that she can not have the quilts, because the quilts are more valuable to Mama and Maggie as everyday use household items. Mama does not care that Maggie can possibly destroy the quilts even though they are an irreplaceable part of the family history, because Mama has peace of mind knowing she has passed them on the right daughter.
While Dee claims to admire her heritage, at the end of the story, she criticizes Mama and Maggie because they remain old fashion and continue to think the same and live the same. Though some people may not agree and think differently with this perspective of Dee. An example of a different point of view on Dees perspective is Hoel Helgas criticism which says, The preference of Maggie over Dee makes me uncomfortable as an educated woman partly estranged from my roots myself. I have no wall space on which to hang the quilt I inherited from my great-aunt, but the family churn has a prominent place in my living room as has also my mother’s spinning wheel. I do not know how to quilt, I do not know how to make butter in that churn and I cannot spin. Am I therefore a fool because I not only keep, but also strongly value this part of my heritage? This is not to say that Alice Walker intends to say that every educated woman thinks this way, she is talking specifically about Dee and her attitude towards her mother and sister. It is not only this action which draws the audience to our conclusion of Dee, but rather everything else Dee has done from the moment she arrived to Mamas. Dee embrace this confusion of misunderstood cultural bits and pieces from all over Africa on purpose either to let Dee represent anything African or perhaps more likely to portray her as a very shallow and superficial young woman who does not bother to check her sources (Hoel). It seems that Dee is more of a follower and is only interested in her culture because that seems to be the fad at the moment.
Sarcasm is another popular form of humor in literature that is hailed to be a sharp, bitter or cutting remark on something or someone. The intensity of ridicule or mockery is often a bit harsh and terse in sarcasm. Generally, sarcasm is closely related to irony however, many people find it to be different than irony. O. Henry uses sarcasm in The Gift of the Magi when Jim tells Della that they should put away their gifts for now, because they are to nice to use just yet. Jim is of course being sarcastic for he knows they must put away their gifts because there is simply no use for them at the moment. O. Henry does an excellent job with his use of humor here, because he turns a dark and gloomy situation into humor. You can tell that O. Henry is rather fond of his characters Jim and Della, because of how much detail he puts into describing how happy the couple is despite their unfortunate circumstances
. The two main characters, Della and Jim, are a happily married couple living near the edge of poverty in an eight dollar a week flat, each with the same problem of trying to figure out how to buy a Christmas present for the other (Eckley). Similar to O. Henrys use of sarcasm, Alice Walker also uses sarcasm in Everyday Use when Mama is unable to say Hakim.a.barbers name. Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name twice as long and three times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he told me to just call him Hakim.a.barber. Mama says she wanted to ask him if he was a barber but then decided not to since she was pretty sure he was not (O. Henry 459). This line from Everyday Use literally made me laugh out loud and it is an excellent example of the use of sarcasm in humor. You can clearly tell that Mama is annoyed by the names that Dee and her boyfriend have declared for themselves. Alice Walker chooses this sarcasm as a way of conveying her message to her audience, and to make it clear to us that Mama is not to fond of these new names that Dee and her boyfriend have chosen for themselves. Although Walker did seem to chose these names wisely and means absolutely no disrespect to the names. We know this because, Walker was very careful in her choice of names, which signify an important part of her characterization (Hoel).
Cosmic irony is said to occur in a situation when the result that you expected is completely in contrast to what the end result is. O. Henrys The Gift of the Magi is a perfect example of this irony because the couple sells the their most precious possession to buy gifts for one another that would actually enhance the others most precious possession. An ironical situation that results in both of them giving each other gifts they have no use for. O. Henry uses this irony to get his message across that it is not necessarily about the gift but more so the thought that counts. The use of irony to relay this message is genius. He is able to get his message across while bringing humor to what would normally be a sad ending. O. Henry’s point that Jim had been very conscious of time. But with Jim’s Christmas sacrifice of his timepiece, the old order of time ended (Bellman) This is also a good point and yet another reason why O. Henrys message is so important, because in this situation more good came then bad. Alice Walker uses a similar technique in Everyday use. She uses cosmic irony when Dee leaves upset at the end of Everyday use, because Mama has given preference to her sister Maggie. It is very ironic that at beginning of Everyday use Mama is waiting for her daughter Dee, who she is very proud of due to her getting and education and being very successful and yet at the end she ends up being more proud of Maggie.
To sum up, there are many types of irony and humor and they do not necessarily always go hand in hand, but as we can see Ó. Henry and Alice Walker both use irony and humor in their short stories. By doing so they are able to create humorous scenarios through the use of irony and humor. The main type of irony used by O. Henry in The gift of the Magi is cosmic irony, he also uses surprise and sarcasm for his humor. Alice Walker also uses surprise and sarcasm humor in her short story Everyday use and uses cosmic irony at the end of her story.