Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
O. Henry often chose to translate tragedy or misfortune into an emphasized regard and tenderness for the unlucky or the underdog. He never cared for the so-called higher classes but preferred to cull his characters, and his sympathies, from watching ordinary people on the streets and in the shops and cafés. This perspective on the world around him is highly visible in “The Gift of the Magi,” where, to enforce his quasi-religious message, he counterpoints the elements of love and caring with those of poverty and sacrifice.
The extreme devotion manifested on the part of the young married couple becomes almost incongruous when contrasted against the dreariness and bleakness of their material surroundings. Each arrives at the conclusion that it is impossible to live through Christmas without granting the other’s supreme wish. It is not “selfish magnanimity”—a desire to revel in the sacrifice of giving—that motivates them. They truly embrace the noble sentiment of selflessness.
Thus, despite the specter of poverty, the story is animated by an unexpressed hope for the future. (This is a variation on the old theme that love conquers all, particularly material setbacks.) By setting the story at Christmastime, the author suggests that simple, unselfish human love is the basis of such hope for humankind.
(The entire section is 213 words.)
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Love, generosity, and the various definitions of wealth and poverty are central themes in "The Gift of the Magi," in which a poor, loving young husband and wife sell the only valuable things they own to give each other special Christmas gifts. Della Young sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a platinum watch chain, and Jim sells his heirloom watch to buy Della some tortoise-shell hair combs. These gifts are useless, in one sense; Della cannot wear her combs without her hair, and Jim, without his watch, cannot use his watch chain.
But the narrator of the story points out that the Youngs possess a gift greater than any object: the gift of love. He compares them to the magi (the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem), saying: ''let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest ... They are the magi."
Growing out of the Youngs' love is their deep generosity. Della and Jim are very poor, and yet Della decides to sell her only treasure: her hair. O. Henry shows that this is not an easy sacrifice for Della to make. He contrasts Della's gorgeous hair with the Youngs' impoverished apartment. The Queen of Sheba herself would have been jealous of this treasure, he asserts, and he gives his readers a vivid image of it: "Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself...
(The entire section is 607 words.)