illustration of two people, a woman and a man, looking at one another in profile with an ornate hair comb between them

The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry
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In "The Gift of the Magi," in what ways are Jim and Della foolish? In what ways are they wise? How is it possible for them to be both foolish and wise? O. Henry describes Jim and Della as “two foolish children” in “The Gift of the Magi.” He also describes them as “the wisest of all.”

Jim and Della Young are foolish because they think that they need to give expensive material gifts to show their love to each other. They are wise because, in the end, they understand that it is their love and their willingness to sacrifice for the other that is the real gift. It is the love with which it is given that makes the material gift valuable, not how many dollars it cost.

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Della and Jim both sell something of great importance to themselves to buy the other a gift. The problem is that while Jim has bought Della hair combs for her beautiful long hair, Della has cut off her hair to pay for a watch fob for her husband's watch. To pay for the hair combs, Jim has sold his watch.

In other words, by the end of this touching story, Della has beautiful hair combs but no hair, and Jim has a watch fob but no heirloom watch. When each of them realizes that the other has sold their prized possession to be able to afford a lovely gift, they are overwhelmed by their love for one another, and realize that their love—and not hair combs or a watch fob—is the ultimate gift that they have given each other.

Their wisdom comes from the realization that love is far more valuable than any material possession could ever be. The knowledge that the other person was willing to sacrifice their hair or their watch respectively is worth far more than the watch fob or hair clips could ever have been.

The ultimate realization was that they had both been foolish to think that they needed lavish gifts to show their love for one another.

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Both Jim and Della Young have sacrificed their most prized possessions to purchase something lovely and beautiful for the other. Jim sold his heirloom pocket watch so that he could buy Della some expensive hair combs, and Della sold her hair so that she could buy Jim a gold watch chain. In a sense, it was "foolish" of them each to part with things that they loved so much because the other does not need an expensive gift to know how much they are loved. There was no need for Jim to pawn his grandfather's watch or for Della to chop off all her hair; it is clear that their love for one another is the real gift they give to each other. The fact that neither can use their expensive gift at the story's end seems to confirm the relative unimportance of material objects such as these. However, what makes Jim and Della "wise" is knowing that love is worth sacrifice. What gives their gifts value is not how much the gifts cost but what each partner sacrificed in the attempt to make the other happy. They are wise because they, ultimately, understand that their love for one another is more important than any material object they may have or will ever own.

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Jim and Della can be thought of as foolish because they both fell into the trap of focusing on the materialism that is associated with gift-giving at Christmastime. As a result, each needlessly sacrificed a cherished possession: Della, her beautiful hair, and Jim, his heirloom watch.

Jim and Della can be thought of as wise because they made a sacrifice for a person that they care about. Because Christmas is a religious holiday that is meant to observe the birth of an entity that made the ultimate personal sacrifice for humanity, their gestures seem in keeping with the spirit of the day.

It is possible to interpret the story's title as ironic in this way: the magi each brought the Christ child a gift: gold, frankincense and myrrh, but they are not particularly useful items for the infant. Similarly, the gifts that Jim and Della gave each other were thoughtful but irrelevant.

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Della was probably foolish in placing so much importance on giving her husband an expensive Christmas gift. She also was foolish in dealing with Madame Sofronie. Della showed that she was eager to sell her hair and thereby gave the shrewd older woman the opportunity to name a low price. No doubt Della's hair was worth much more, but she didn't bargain or go to a competitive hair buyer. Madame Sofronie practically scalped the poor girl. Della could have specified that she wanted to keep at least a little more of her long hair. She was undoubtedly victimized in the deal.

Jim was foolish in parting with a gold watch that had been in his family for three generations. He may be considered foolish in being so vain about the watch that he was always looking at the time. Like Della, he placed too much importance of getting an expensive gift for the person he loved. 

Jim and Della were both foolish because they spent too much money for Christmas presents when they were so hard up for cash. There is a moral for moderns in this story. Many people go overboard at Christmastime because nowadays we have credit cards. 

Jim and Della are only wise in being willing to make sacrifices because of their true love for each other. 

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O. Henry is known for his ironic turns and surprise endings, and this story is no exception. The audience knows that Della has sold her hair. We know that it is her most prized possession, but that she willingly gives it up to give Jim a gift worthy of his wonderful pocket-watch. What we don't know until the end is that Jim has sold his pocket-watch to buy Della a gift worthy of her beautiful hair. 

The narrator calls these two "foolish children," claiming that they "most unwisely sacrificed...the greatest treasures of their house." They are called foolish for parting with items of such great value to them.

They are also called the wisest of gift-givers and receivers, and the wisest everywhere. This is because of how they gave gifts -- sacrificially. O. Henry uses a paradoxical statement here to drive home his theme -- true gift-giving requires sacrifice. Financially, they are foolish. Already very poor, the give up the most valuable possessions they have. Relationally, they are wise, because they parted with the items for the sake of another's happiness. 


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