Friday, December 20, 2013

Colorful Writing in the Classic Christmas Short Story: "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry

Earlier this week my grandson's English assignment was to do a close reading of and make annotations on the classic Christmas short story, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (William Sidney Porter).

I’ve always liked the story because of its message of selfless giving, but it wasn’t until my close reading of the story with my grandson that I noticed how O. Henry used color to paint a picture with words and depict the mood of the story.

Here's an abbreviated version of the story, with the colors highlighted:

It’s Christmas Eve. Della has only one-dollar and eighty-seven cents to buy a present for her husband, Jim.

While Jim is at work, she sits on a shabby couch looking out the window and watches a gray cat walk along a gray fence in a gray backyard. Her feet rest on the worn red carpet.

When she combs her shiny brown hair it falls like a cascade of brown water. In desperation, she decides what she must do, and she turns white for just a moment.

She puts on a brown jacket and brown hat and rushes out to see Madame Sofronie, who is large, white, and chilly.

Della sells her long brown hair to Madame Safronie for twenty dollars then takes the money and shops on rosy wings.

She buys her husband a platinum fob chain for twenty-one dollars to use with his most prized possession, his gold watch.

Meanwhile, on his way home from work, her husband Jim trades his gold watch for a set of lovely tortoise shell combs to give to Della to complement her beautiful long brown hair.
That's quite a lot of colors.

While I use color in my writing, I try not to overuse it. Now, I wonder if I should use more.
After re-reading "The Gift of the Magi," I thought about another short story of O. Henry's that I read in high school: "The Ransom of Red Chief."
After the holidays I plan to re-read that story to see if O. Henry also uses a lot of color in that one. While I'm at it I'll take a gander at some other classic short stories by other famous writers and see how they use colors in their stories too. 
What are your thoughts on using color in writing? Can you recommend any short stories where authors effectively use color?


  1. This was interesting...never thought of O Henry and color. I think color is important, helps us "see" in the story.
    Really dark and GRAY here on this day despite the RED and GREEN decorations all around. Hope the forecasters are wrong, that we get neither crystal BLUE ice sheets or WHITE snow for the weekend!

  2. Donna--I never connected O. Henry and color, either.

    My favorite O. Henry short story is "The Last Leaf." It's a wonderful one...

  3. Interesting post, Donna. I really didn't give all that much thought to color until Saturday Writers started using it as a theme for their monthly contests. It certainly is another way to add dimension to a story.

    Critter Alley

  4. Hi Claudia,
    It's gray here, but my hubby is making the trek to mail Christmas cards--and the book to you!

    Hi Sioux,
    I agree that "The Last Leaf" is a wonderful story.

    Hi Pat,
    You are so right!

  5. This is something to think about. I don't like to overuse colors and hearing "azure blue" gets old in my opinion. But I do like to splash a story with some color, not necessarily character's eyes or hair.

  6. Interesting observation, and you really made me want to reread O. Henry! I can't think of any short stories where color stood out, but I do remember reading a Judy Blume book (one of the adult ones) where the main character nicknames a woman "Brown" because the woman has brown makeup and clothing and nail polish. Always loved that, Oh! And one of my favorite descriptions EVER was in a Kurt Vonnegut book where I'm remembering a male character described simply as "beautiful, and all the colors olives can be."

  7. I've always thought that if you use too many different colors that you would confuse the reader while they are trying to imagine all those different colors. I thought colors you did highlight should be ones you want to stand out. But I'm not going to argue with O. Henry and a wonderful story like Gift of the Magi. The new popular YA series Divergent uses a lot of color because the color of clothing means something to the people in the faction--almost like a gang.

  8. For some reason, I can't think of anything that stands out with color... and I'll have to put O. Henry on my list of reads. Makes me want to look at my current writing that's going out and see if there is color in there!

  9. Hi Linda,
    I agree. The azure blue description is overused.

    Hi Tammy,
    Vivid description from Vonnegut. It made me think of how many colors olives can be.

    Hi Margo,
    You are right about too many colors confusing the reader and using the ones you want to stand out.

    Hi Lynn,
    After the holidays I'm going to go through some of my older stories to see if I've overused color.

  10. I love O. Henry and certainly would not argue with Gift of the Magi. Yet I can hear the critiquers in my group now as they advise cutting some of these color references and the red pens scratching them out! I do use a lot of color in my writing but I try to make sure is significant and helps sets the tone or mood in a specific way.

  11. I think color is a very effective tool for setting the tone of a story--and obviously, O.Henry (a favorite of mine!) begins his story with the grimness of her mood and all that gray. But when Della gives of herself, the colors change to rosy, gold and platinum. How her world sparkles! Thanks so much for pointing out the color and how O. Henry used it!

  12. Hi Marcia,
    You are right about the critique group, and you are a colorful writer, which is a good thing!

    Hi Cathy,
    You are welcome. O. Henry's stories were memorable, and I can learn a lot from him!


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