Marriage as Captivity:
The Short Fiction of O'Henry and Chopin
The short stories "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry and "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin explore the nuances of married life in memorable and plaintive manners. At first glance, these two short stories appear to be very different and portray the institution of marriage in dramatically distinct ways. However, the reality is that each story looks at a trend which can exist within a union between two people: the trend of captivity in marriage. Both Henry and Chopin's stories demonstrate the prevalence of captivity in marriage and how one's marriage partner can quickly become one's cell mate. Each other demonstrates a certain level of the imprisonment which can exist and thrive within marriage and how damaging this can be when allowed to thrive.
The "Gift of the Magi" at first glance appears to be a classic story about a young couple who attempts to sell some of their most precious items in order to purchase an appropriate Christmas gift for the other. On the surface, this appears to be a charming story about two thoughtful and selfless people who just want to purchase a nice gift for the other. The problem with the intentions of these characters is that they both believe that a gift which is worthy of the other person, automatically has to be one which is extremely expensive. This is so problematic because it demonstrates a certain level of captivity within the union. Both partners are captive to this impractical ideal -- an ideal which specifies that love and affection have a price. This is an imprisonment of sorts and they're both held to notion that in order for their love to be considered meaningful and in order to show that they care enough, they've got to put a particular price tag on their affection. The gift is only meaningful with the price tag attached. This sense of captivity causes more problems than it is able to solve and instead of bringing them closer to one another in a healthy and constructive manner, it brings them further apart from one another in a manner which essentially tightens the chains which bind them together. As one scholar writes, "a dilemma causes two characters to act along independent paths, unaware of each other's efforts; eventually they discover that their actions have been working against, or at cross-purposes to, the other's actions" (Zuniga, 2012). There's a sense of blindness which is present throughout this story. Marriage is presented as a union where the two parties are extremely out of step with one another. There's a pronounced lack of oneness, and obliviousness that makes them both highly out of touch with the other. Rather than creating a Christmas where both partners receive gifts that are so wonderful, they're beyond their wildest dreams, these partners create a sense of disappointment and disconnect. The fact that both partners had focused so strongly on the importance of spending lots of money and material possessions, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the real importance within human connections. This implies that perhaps there is no real connection between these two individuals, that perhaps, they're really just two individuals flung together in a marriage which is only skin deep. As a result of the fact that the values of Jim and Della are so skewed, their marriage begins to resemble something which is nothing more than a series of successful gestures. Rather than two people who are in love and committed, they start to look more like two children tossed together in a small room, who aren't quite able to find a way out.
One of the devices in "The Gift of the Magi" which works to demonstrate how misguided the two central character are, is the highly didactic tone that the narrator uses. The magi are referred to as "wonderfully wise men" by the author, implying that the central characters of this story are anything but. In fact, the narrator refers to these central characters and the story they experience as an "uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house" (O'Henry). There's indeed a very ominous quality to this remark. The remark implies that this tale was more than simply just the petty mistakes of a pair of newlyweds. Instead such a remark implies that Jim and Della actually sacrificed something worse and something far more meaningful than just locks of hair and a gold watch. There's the implication that they fell into a deeper bond of blindness, and a heavier stupor. O'Henry merely summarizes the story by reminding us how wise the magi are, even though to most readers, the magi are more of an abstract philosophical concept. One could even argue that O'Henry appears to...
Such a sentiment is nothing to gloss over. As Zuniga illuminates, the didactic quality with which O'Henry conducts his narrative makes a striking commentary on marriage as a whole. The innocence with which these mistakes are described then becomes painted in far more macabre colors with more macabre implications. The mistakes that this married couple make seem to doom their future in the world of O'Henry, as noticeably enough, they are unable to engage in any actions which fix the situation or their bond. The hair is gone, the watch is sold. They become victimized by the circumstances that they put themselves in and have no one to blame but themselves. O'Henry demonstrates how this yawning chasm which this issue presents, is somewhat cast aside and lacks a strong resolution, or any resolution. "Della,' said he, "let's put our Christmas gifts away and keep them a while. They're too nice to use now. I sold the watch to get the money to buy the combs. And now I think we should have our dinner" (O'Henry). One of the most striking aspects of this way of dealing with the problem these two characters have created is connected to the fact that the problem isn't solved, or really even addressed. Neither character is forced to take any introspection into his or her soul, nor are they asked to look at one another and determine where these skewed motivations came from where money always equals love.
It's important to bear in mind that in the world of O'Henry, the narrative is always intrusive, and focuses on satire, humor and romance in a manner which generally offers up a surprise ending (Zuniga, 2012). In this particular story, the intrusive narrator really only functions to offer up a stronger sense of the estranging distance that moves like an iceberg between the two main characters. As this distance grows between them, the institution of marriage remains unchanged. This dynamic is one of the factors which pushed the sense of captivity in marriage to another height.
"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin truly demonstrates the sense of captivity in marriage and imprisonment in marriage in a more direct and unflinching way. The story is simple: for one hour Mrs. Mallard thinks her husband is among the dead of a horrible train accident. And for one hour, this character knows nothing but the taste and sense of freedom. The reader never gets to see the Mrs. Mallard with her husband, thus there's no great sense of what the marriage was like since it is never properly witnessed. However, the reader goes get a strong sense of the captivity with which this woman was faced with. For example, one of the first things that Mrs. Mallard thinks to herself is "free, free, free." She is so overwhelmed by her general sense of freedom that she takes in the news alone, as a symbol of her perceived autonomy. Consider the following excerpt: "There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination" (Chopin). This excerpt demonstrates how in the last few years, she had been forced to live for her husband or forced to live for this union -- but never for herself. Essentially what this indicates is that she has had to give up the entirety of her humanity and individuality…
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