Summary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Gifts

In Gifts by Ralph Waldo Emerson has defined the gift as ‘a portion of thyself’ rather than something that could be purchased. The essay dwells upon the virtues of selfless giving. In this essay, Emerson encourages the reader to do some ‘high thinking’ about the nature of both ‘gift giving’ and ‘gift receiving’.


The essay, ‘Gifts’ starts with a quote “Gift of Ones… stopped for shame.” Emerson gives us a preview to the essay stating that a person yearns for the love from others. When people love others, they present him with gifts. When love disappears, gifts cease to come. Such melting away of love is highly unfortunate and it should put the gift giver to shame. The undertone of the quote is emphasizing upon the importance of love.

Emerson states that there is a perennial shortage of gifts and gift – givers in the world. There is so much dearth of it that the world seems to be constantly trying to grapple with the shortage. During Christmas and New Year, one has a strong urge to give gifts as a generous act, but the scarcity of gifts seem to exceed. The main problem in gifting is to decide what exactly is to be gifted, for the judicious selection of a gift puts a lasting impression on the mind of the receiver, whereas an impulsion. Here, Emerson specifies by stating his personal example that if, at any time, he is due to gift somebody then he gets puzzled even after the time and opportunity of giving away the gift is gone.

Discussing about the choice of gifts, Emerson finds ‘Flowers’ and ‘Fruits’ as the two very obvious choices. Flowers, he says, symbolize the loftiest and most charming offerings of the nature. They beguile the mind through their breathtaking beauty and variety. Nature at times unveils its dark side to us, however, a blossom emerges from the morbid background bringing with it, its genteel, fresh and bewitching face. Flowers, undoubtedly, are the messengers of love and sublime creativity. They make us feel good, loved, wanted and important. Flowers flatter us in a subtle way. They give us pleasure by hinting upon what we mean to whom. Fruits, Emerson states, are an adorable item to be gifted, to a large extent.

Fruits, just like flowers, are nature’s best offerings to its children. They assure of providing a sense of satisfaction with the satiating values attached to it. Emerson explains with a situation that if a fruit grower walks an unusually long distance, carrying the basket of fruit on his back and present it to his friend, the sheer labour involved in the transportation of the fruit and the love of the giver for the recipient, proportionally enhances his self – importance.

Emerson now talks about the ordinary gifts, those other than flowers and fruits. In his view, Emerson states that the ‘necessity for the recipient’ is a good parameter to analyze while choosing a gift. He states a few examples like, presenting a pair of shoes to a barefooted person will definitely fill his heart with an instant joy since he was craving for a pair of shoes. Hence, ordinary day-to-day items make a great gifting idea as they mean to satisfy the first want of the receiver. Seeing a hungry man eating with relish is always a pleasing sight. So gifting food items to the ones who need it, is a great thought.

The next parameter to decide on a gift is the convey of thought which properly suits the character of the gift – receiver. For instance, gifting something that might suit the hobby or desire of the receiver makes for a good choice. Though Emerson says that we tend to apologize when we choose rings or jewels as gifts. He says that these are no gifts but a shame on gifts as they convey no amount of personal sentiment or sacrifice, rather, the giver expects the receiver to love it just for its monetary worth. Herein, Emerson emphasizes the fact that ‘The only gift is a portion of thyself.’ One must give a part of himself in the gift, while gifting someone, for that will speak volumes about the love and the emotional bond shared between the two. Emerson justifies this thought by stating that when a poet brings his poem, a shepherd when brings a lamb from his herd, a farmer brings a portion of his harvest, the miner gets a gem, the sailor when gifts a coral and shells, the painter when gets a picture and a girl when gifts a handkerchief which is self – sewed, the giver parts with a portion of his own self. In the same thought, when a person gifts another his biography, he instantly builds an emotional bond. Such gifts are valued and are received with utter warmth and delight. In terms of monetary value, such gifts may be insignificant but for the recipient they are priceless and an absolute treasure. Such gifts touch the heart.

Emerson says that, in his personal opinion, when a person shops to buy a gift, something which does not represent the giver’s life and talent, the intention of giving gift reduces to an effort for enhancing one’s own standing, or as atonement sums for sins. Such practice of choosing ready-made items of high value is seen among the elite and the royalty. However, such gifts are cold, impersonal and detached in nature, hence become a mere formal act of gifting rather than building up a bond between the gift-giver and the gift-receiver.

Emerson further discusses a very important aspect of the culture of ‘gifting’. In his opinion, the practice of giving or receiving gift is a delicate job that requires careful judgement. Normally, a self-respecting man doesn’t like receiving gifts for they like to be self-sustained and, therefore, tend to get upset and unforgiving towards the gift-giver. Only those gifts that express genuine and unselfish love are positively received. One can accept anything which is given out of love, but when someone gives gifts in a condescend attitude, the person receiving it feels hurt and humiliated and might show his displeasure overtly for one feels obliged. So, gift-giving carries with it some risk. For instance, Emerson states, we might feel guilty while eating the meat for it had been reared by someone else’s effort and investment, hence adding an element of degrading dependency to it.

Emerson continues further, though now he sounds didactic. He says that there is a major risk attached to receiving gifts. He kind of preaches us and says that if someone gives us a gift, we should make it a point not to take anything else from him. Emerson says that our expectations from others is limitless. We ask for everything, ranging from earth, fire, water, opportunity, love, reverence, etc. We expect all our needs to be given to us as gifts. Such expectations which are borne out of greed and laziness are degrading in nature and, therefore, need to be avoided.

Being able to receive gifts with dignity and grace is a virtue. We should restrain our feelings while receiving gifts and curb the overt expressions of joy or disappointment at the time of accepting gifts for it degrades the sole purpose of gifting. When a gift comes from someone who isn’t aware of the nature and spirit of the receiver, it causes more harm than good, for it reveals the unconcerned attitude of the giver. Gifts given just as mere ‘giveaways’ are vexatious, because the reason behind gifting isn’t mutual love or admiration.

Even in the situations when the receiver likes the gift that he has received, he is expected to hold onto his expression of extreme joy for it will be embarrassing for the giver to find that the gift is adored more than the giver himself. Emerson emphasizes again the true spirit of gifting, which is nothing more than a flow of mutual love between the gift-giver and the receiver of it.

The idea of the ‘usefulness’ of the gift does not hold good in a situation where both, the giver and receiver, are intimate friends and are of equal means. In such a cash, a modest gift may be misguided as a slight. The receiver might feel annoyed on getting such a ‘small’ gift. He might, out of greed, desire to be given a large chunk of the giver’s assets. Instead of thanking, he might end up getting angry with the giver. Emerson suggests that it is rather better to keep away from such ungrateful, mean and greedy people. Emerson suggests people to remain detached and unaffected on receiving a gift. Stating the Buddhists, he says that they behave with rare equanimity on being flattered or honoured with gifts. So all should behave like them.

In Emerson’s view, the reason for such discords between the gift-giver and receiver is that in many cases or on many occasions, the gift, that is given, fails to communicate with both, the giver and the receiver. Emerson says that no gift is apt for a magnanimous person, because when one works for a magnanimous person, he rewards so profusely that one instantly becomes indebted to him. His generosity makes him a difficult person to be chosen to give a gift to, since such altruistic persons are always prompt in helping a friend in need. It, thus, becomes very difficult to extend even a minor service to them. In our daily life, we interact with our friends. At times we are good to them and at times our acts may be evil. All this happens so frequently that we fail to thank our friends for their good deeds. Emerson suggests here that if we are unable to render a service to someone directly, we can do collective good by sticking to a moral and honest behavior.

In Emerson’s opinion ‘the power of love is a genius gift and the best of all.’ He states that love is all encompassing and universally sought. A gift that sings in love should be accepted with utmost joy. One should never attempt to qualify such a show of love. Some people are eminently placed to give worthy gifts, hence one should embrace it with pleasure.

One cannot pursue gifts and get them. They come on their own, unsolicited. Emerson concludes by saying that when the charm of love is missing, no amount of gift, either in quantity or value, should be accepted by us. He says that personally, through his well meaning advice, he received some intellectual satisfaction. Those who benefit from his sermons but fail to thank him, he is morally bound to love them too.

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