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Marxist philosophy believes that society views the world through a completely economic lens. Marxism dictates that society is separated into two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie utilizes ideology to suppress the proletariat mainly by manipulating their perceptions of their free agency. One ideology that the upper class perpetuates onto the working class is that of consumerism. Consumerism is the belief that the quality of the items one acquires can improve one’s worth. As Marxists believe of all ideologies, consumerism is an unconscious belief that is so deeply entrenched in society that it affects the decisions that every human being makes. This creed creates the concept of commodity fetishism which describes how “[p]eople in a capitalist society thus begin to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labor expended to produce the object” (Modules on Marx: Fetishism). By reducing the human experience to the pursuit of economic prosperity, the concept of commodification was created. Commodification goes the extra step of reducing a person’s value to their monetary value. These three concepts together have the power to dismantle nature’s purest concepts such as love. O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” displays how consumerism, commodity fetishism, and commodification can distort natural virtues such as self-identity and love.
Jim and Della, the protagonists of “The Gift of the Magi”, base the measure of themselves and their love for each other on consumerist ideals. Primarily, the narrator sets the scene when he observes, “Now, when [Mr. James Dillingham Young] was being paid only $20 a week, the name seemed too long and important…Mrs. James Dillingham Young put her arms warmly about him and called him ‘Jim’” (Henry 2). The speaker describes in explicit detail the extent of the couple’s dilapidated living conditions, mentioning the faulty items that clutter the house such as the faulty doorbell and miniscule mailbox. Consumerism believes that the high value of the products one owns is equitable to their class status. The narrator supports this idea by highlighting the inappropriateness of James’s name as compared to his social standing. “James Dillingham Young” speaks of prestige and affluence, of a legacy of wealth passed down from generation to generation. It is a name designated to him by chance and the narrator asserts that he is not deserving of it. The reason is based solely off of James’s economic status, rather than on his character. This sentiment is solidified further by the fact that James’s own wife refers to him as Jim. By consumerist standards “Jim” is a much more fitting name for the salaryman. Jim is a simple, plain name, the type of name deserving for a man of such a low class. Moreover, Della allows this ideology to color her judgment when she ponders, “Only $1.87 to buy a gift for Jim…Something nearly good enough. Something almost worth the honor of belonging to Jim” (2). The story takes great pains to establish the authentic, pure love that exists between James and Della.
As strong as that devotion is, Della believes that she can only prove her love through monetary means. She views “the honor” of Jim as the wealthiest object that can match his noble character. This perspective alters the wholesome nature of love, warping it into a competition of goods. Love existed before currency, yet Della exhibits how money has grown to confine the ideals of love. Furthermore, the story cements its attitude on consumerism when the narrator details, “[The gold watch chain’s] value was in its rich and pure material. Because it was so plain and simple, you knew that it was very valuable. All good things are like this” (3). It is ironic that the words “plain” and “simple”, usually utilized to describe the conditions of impoverished citizens, are now used to appreciate an upscale object. This is how the bourgeoisie uses ideology to control the working classes. Unconsciously, the upper class celebrates chasteness and frugality in their commodities while outwardly punishing the lower classes for the same traits. This philosophy leads the indigent to revere austere yet expensive items even though the same value can be found in cheaper substitutes. The power of consumerism is undeniable as it pushes to Della to drastics measures to obtain the watch chain.
Commodity fetishism pushes the young couple unimaginable lengths to validate their love. Initially, the narrator illustrates the lovers’ deep reverence of material goods when he expounds, “The James Dillingham Youngs were very proud of two things which they owned. One thing was Jim’s gold watch…Jim knew that no king had anything so valuable” (2-3). The narrator mentions that the watch has passed down to each generation in the Dillingham Young family. However, this is not what gives the watch value. Gold or not, every watch serves the same function. The worth of the object comes from its perceived luxuriousness, as shown by its likening to a possession of a king. But the perceived grandeur of the watch is not enough to satisfy the couple. Therein lies the danger of commodity fetishism. Because Jim and Della have staked their passion for each other on material items, the attainment of one glorious commodity only begets the desire for more. Consequently, Della exemplifies the impact of commodity fetishism when the speaker elucidates, “The other thing was Della’s hair…Della knew her hair was more beautiful than any queen’s jewels and gifts” (2). Della’s hair is another natural aspect of the world given to her without any consideration of her class status. And yet, her hair is reduced to nothing more than a commodity for trade that she must sell. She laments this herself exclaiming, “‘But what could I do—oh! What could I do with a dollar and eighty seven cents?’” (4). Since she has tied her love for James to physical objects, Della believes she had no other option but to sacrifice something as precious as her own hair. The thought does not occur to her that strength of her affection is a admirable gift on its own. In her worldview, love has a ceiling that one can only bypass through wealth.
Commodification has the ability to pervert the image lovers have of one another but can be reversed by a change in worldview. Initially, Della demonstrates her warped view of her husband when she contemplates, “Quietness and value—Jim and the chain both had quietness and value. She paid twenty-one dollars for it” (3). Della frames her perception of her lover in such a manner that it appears as if James should be striving to match the chain’s perfection instead of the other way around. This image of James is further highlighted by the added detail of the gift’s cost. Since the connection between the object and Della’s beau has already been made, it appears as if the story is claiming that James’s worth also amounts to a mere twenty dollars. Instead of demonstrating the depths of Della’s love, her perspective only displays the restrictive parameters of her passion. However, she begins to break through her deep seated ideologies when she proclaims, “‘Maybe the hairs of my head could be counted,’ she said, “but no one could ever count my love for you.’” (5). Though it was through Della’s own fault that her affection became commodified, she comes to a realization about the true nature of love. Love is limitless, unlike the economy; its value cannot be counted. The narrator affirms this message when he declares, “Eight dollars a week or a million dollars a year—how different are they? Someone may give you an answer, but it will be wrong” (5). The speaker draws attention to the truth about money: it only has a material worth. Innate ideals such as love have a power that ascends above humanity’s social constructs. It exists for everyone no matter whether they’re rich or poor. As the story displays, the fact that they were willing to sacrifice their most prized object for each other outweighs any object that they could’ve exchanged. By overcoming their ideologies, James’ and Della’s love grows purer and stronger.
Consumerism, commodity fetishism, commodification pervert organic aspects of humanity, as shown in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” The thoughts and actions of the young couple featured in this tale display the deep rooted psychological effects of ideology. Left unchecked, ideology can influence one’s outlook on the world. Jim and Della, an otherwise devoted couple, commodified their love. Then their images of each other diminished to their level of material value. This entire process happened unconsciously, and they were only able to break free of the cycle through the strength of their love. The system as it remains now taints the natural bonds that exist in society. The bourgeoisie strips away the ties that might inspire the proletariat to rise against their oppressor by manipulating their psyche. The upper classes convince the working classes that their life should be spent devoted to the pursuit of prosperity and that every component of their lives work towards that end. Reinterpreting concepts such as love and character as tools of the economy aids in the continuation of this system. Ultimately, appreciation of the human spirit over one’s valuation is the first step in curtailing the class disparity that has reigned over our society for generations.
Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. January 31, 2011. Purdue U. March 11,2018 <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html>.
Henry, O. The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories. Dover, 1992.
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