The Gift of O. Henry

English: Lesson 110

O. Henry, London, Bierce. Which of the three authors would you prefer to read on your own time?

I remember reading O. Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi (1905) when I was little during Christmas. I had got a book from the library and the first picture was of a beautiful woman with the most gorgeous auburn hair, sitting at a window with a few coins in her hand, looking down at a dreary city street. I loved that picture. I loved how it needed no explanation. I could instantly tell what that woman was thinking by the way she held the grey coins and lounged on the window seat. The very first sentence of the story was perfect.  “ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.” 

Reading O. Henry’s famous story again years later reminded me how much I loved his stories. As a little kid, you don’t have the attention span to read an entire chapter book, but you’re not so little that you don’t appreciate good writing and a clever story. O. Henry was one of the first authors that I read and thought, wow this is a good story and it doesn’t feel like I am reading a children’s book. His stories were always about believable people, and the most famous ones were always about sacrifice. But the main reason I love the stories is that his characters are always optimistic. There is never a completely devastating ending where you think, well that was a waste of my time. When you sit down to read one of O. Henry’s stories, you can be sure to get up with a warm cozy feeling, or at least a satisfying feeling.

Jack London is famous for this novel Call of the Wild & White Fang. It is indeed a classic and a good read, but unlike O. Henry, his stories are all about struggle, the need to survive, and the fact that mankind is frail. Not exactly what I’d call warm and cozy themes. However, London has the incredible ability to draw you into a scene, making it real for you. Even I was drawn into the tense fire building scene in his book To Build a Fire. But at the end of the story, I was left with an unsettling feeling, where the ending did not relieve the tension throughout the entire story. I read Call of the Wild & White Fang and enjoyed it a bit more. But I only read it because I knew it was a good book and an incredible piece of writing. I wouldn’t read his stories when I have a moment to sit and enjoy something. They are far too intense for me.

Ambrose Bierce, famous for his hilarious Devil’s Dictionary, was a joy to read. I loved glossing through all the definitions and finding one that stuck out to me and reading it aloud. It was quite enjoyable, and here are a few I laughed aloud at.

ABDOMEN, n. The temple of the god Stomach, in whose worship, with sacrificial rights, all true men engage.

BEAUTY, n. The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

BRIDE, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.

DANCE, v.i. To leap about to the sound of tittering music, preferably with arms about your neighbor’s wife or daughter.

DELUGE, n. A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.

KILT, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Though all these definitions are funny to read they show how much of a cynic Bierce was. He was a consistent Darwinist who thought there was no meaning to life. He was very clever and used humour to soften his attack on humanity. The Devil’s Dictionary reveals the dark side of him.

Most of the American literature from 1900 to 1910 was very optimistic and was the beginning of mass entertainment. O. Henry was able to write extremely quickly, publishing his short stories often, which people liked because of their overall hopeful and happy themes. Bierce and London do not have that same optimism, which is why I would prefer to sit down with a cup of tea and read a few stories by O. Henry.

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