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.