The Gift of the Magi Revisited, and Revisited...


Clark Elliott

Here we look at an example design used by a computer application that runs contrasting simulations of stories using different personalities for the characters, while keeping the external plot constant. In this way different themes are illustrated based on the internal, rather than external, lives of the characters. Here we show three versions of the William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) story, ``The gift of the Magi.'' We alter the meaning of the plot by giving the characters unique and varied sets of concerns, although the external plot points remain relatively constant.

Alternate points of view may give multiple meanings to a single external event. Creative vision in literature often entails viewing situations through the unique concerns of various agents, thus giving multiple meanings to a single set of events. That people have their own unique, often contrasting, sets of concerns is the source of great conflict in the world, and a source of dissimilar, but compatible, perspectives as well. This is true of nations and cultures, nuclear families, friends and lovers, and it is even true, as in the case of conflicting or mixed emotions, of individuals. We may examine these different perspectives by characterizing them in terms of the unique states and reactions they generate, or, put another way, by characterizing these perspectives in terms of the affective states and emotional responses they generate. This is the approach we have taken.

The emotion eliciting condition rules we use for the strong-theory reasoning component of the Affective Reasoner are based on the work of Ortony et al. [\cite{ortony88}) which specifies twenty-two emotion types based on valenced reactions to situations construed either as being goal-relevant events, as acts of accountable agents, or as attractive or unattractive objects. This theory has been extended to include the two additional emotion categories of love and hate. For this excercise we constructed a sequence of simulation events representing the (simplified) external plot of the Gift of the Magi, and a set of personality frames for interpreting them. This allowed the user to interactively create different personalities for each of the two characters, which in turn then responded in unique ways to the situations that arose in the story. As an illustration, we made three different simulation runs, giving the three different computerized renditions of the story reported here. In the first run we simulated only the external plot without any appraisals by the agents. In the second we added appraisal structures that gave the characters simple emotions similar to those in the actual O. Henry story. In the third we altered the appraisal structures of the agents so that they had entirely different reactions to events in the story, thus leading to a very different set of emotions. Keeping the external plot identical for the three runs allowed us to highlight changes in the internal lives of the characters. The thesis of our argument is that in its basic form the story is only of minor interest, containing just one ``trick'' wherein the two lovers sell their prized possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts that are only to be used with exactly those possessions. The true meaning of the story lies in the stated, or imagined, emotional states and resulting dramatic tension. The story has a bittersweet quality to it, embodying the theme of love conquering adversity. The true representational question then is not {\em what happened\/} but rather {\em what\/} what happened meant to the characters in the story.

Version A: The paraprhased basic external plot events, sans interpretation of appraisal by the agents:

Version B :Paraphrased steps of the basic plot, with character emotions similar to those expressed or implied by O. Henry


Goals: (1) Della desired to save enough money to buy Jim a Christmas present. (2) Della desires to keep her beautiful hair. (3) Della wants to find the right watch chain for Jim. (4) Della wants Jim to be attracted to her. (5) Della wants Jim to approve of her actions in selling her hair. Etc. Principles: (1) One should not quibble over small matters of money. Etc.


Goals: (1) Jim wants Della to like his gift for her. (2) Jim wants Della to be able to use her gift once she possesses it. Etc.

Principles: (1-2) omitted (3) It is admirable to sell your prized possession to buy something for another.

Preferences: (1) Jim finds Della attractive.

In this version a number of concerns have been given to the two agents, giving them their unique perspectives, and ultimately their rudimentary emotional lives. Examples are (1) the fear Della feels over the unconfirmed possibility that she will fail to maintain Jim's attraction for her -- the possible blocking of a preservation goal, and (2) the love that Jim feels for Della because he admires her for what he consider to be her praiseworthy sacrifices and because he finds her attractive. Giving agents emotional depth in this manner allows us to create true characters which in turn allows us to support literary themes such as devotion, sacrifice and romantic love. In the next run we created a very different perspective on the simulation events, and thus captured very different themes.

Version C The paraphrased story as re-written using the Affective Reasoner's control of the characters' personalities


Principles: (1) One should always get the lowest price, no matter what. (Della appraises her thriftworthy actions as praiseworthy as she recalls specific instances, but as blameworthy when measured against a hypothetical standard of what she ``should'' have been able to save.) ... (3) Others should not make demands about one's appearance. (4) one should not make unseemly display of one's physical attributes. Etc.

Goals: (1) Della desires short, easy-to-maintain hair. (2) Della desires to be able to claim that she suffers more than Jim. Etc.

Preferences: Della likes short, convenient hair.

Principles: (1) One should never humiliate someone who loves them. Etc.

Goals: (1) Jim wants to buy expensive Christmas gifts without worrying about money. (2) Wants to preserve his monopoly on Della's love and companionship. Etc.

Preferences: Jim finds Della generally attractive, even with short hair. Jim finds Della unattractive when he sees her as untrustworthy.

In this version of the story, the relationship between the agents may be characterized primarily as one of animosity. Della is predominantly angry, which follows from her concerns being more heavily weighted towards principles. Jim is primarily sad and fearful, which follows from his concerns being weighted toward goals. Jim also has conflicting emotions: on the one hand he loves Della, but on the other he is resentful that he feels he is forced to continually earn the return of that love. Such conflicting emotions are not a limitation of the system, but rather often are a central element in dramatic tension.


The original O. Henry story makes much use of editorial comment about the mental states of the characters. This is commonly done in fictional (and even ostensibly journalistic) works. However, the internal lives of people are not generally directly available to observers. That we change the story when we change the meaning of the static external events to the characters is exactly our point: much of the interest of the story, and much of the theme representation, is contained in the internal lives of the agents. To have access to these components of stories for creative manipulation by the computer requires that we have a representational system capable of combining the constituent parts of the agents' emotional lives in a meaningful way.

Also discusssed in the full article are the way users of the Affective Reasoner can dynamically construct personalities, how relationships between the agents are represented, and how users can participate in the simulation.