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," what does the author mean when referring to "the wrong answer"?

In "The Gift of the Magi," the "wrong answer" would be to say that a million dollars is worth far more than eight. The right answer is that the love Della and Jim share is worth far more than any amount of money they might have.

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To understand the answer to this question about "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry, you need to grasp the meaning of the title and the author's intention in writing this short story. This is a Christmas story about gift giving. The title and the author's allusions later in the text refer to the story of the birth of Jesus in the book of Matthew in the Bible. It tells of "wise men from the east" coming to Jerusalem after following a star. When they find Jesus, they open their treasures and present him with gifts: "Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh." This is what O. Henry means when he writes of them inventing "the art of giving Christmas presents."

Jim and Della are a married couple living in poverty, but at the end of the story, the author proclaims,

Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.

How can O. Henry compare this couple to the powerful wise men who gave rich gifts to Jesus? The point of O. Henry's story is that the value of gifts is not measured in how much they cost in terms of money but in terms of the love that accompanies the gifts. We see in this story that Jim and Della both gave up their most treasured material possessions so that they could purchase gifts that would express how much they love each other. Della sells her luxuriant hair, and Jim sells his prized heirloom watch. The irony of the story is that each buys items that are accessories for the valuables that the other has sold. However, despite the fact that the gifts cannot immediately be used, the love they both bring to the giving is pure and undiminished.

The author asks, "Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference?" He asks this as Jim and Della are hugging just after Jim has seen Della's cut hair and realizes that his gift of jeweled hair combs cannot be used. A mathematician would give the answer in terms of numerical value of money earned, but that would be wrong because it gives no consideration to the love invested in the situation. A wit (or comedian) would probably quip that Jim and Della both made terrible mistakes, crack a joke at their expense, and conclude that the outcome would have been different if they had been richer, but the wit would be wrong too.

The only correct answer to this question in terms of this story and the value of the love that Jim and Della show for each other is that there is absolutely no difference between "eight dollars a week or a million a year." Money has no consideration at all in the assessment of the purity of love.

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Della has just informed Jim that she sold her hair. She then says,

"Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you."

Jim then folds Della in his arms, and the narrator interjects to comment:

For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer.

Jim is earning only eight dollars a week, which even at the time the story was written was a very low salary. The couple lives in a cheap, shabby apartment and is struggling to make ends meet. What the narrator means, however, is that money is worth much less than the love the young couple shares. The wrong answer would be to say that there is a huge difference between eight dollars and a million, because in Della's eyes, Jim is worth just as much no matter what his income and vice versa. The narrator goes on to say that

the magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

O. Henry does return to the magi at the end of the story. The magi, or three wise men, brought the infant Jesus costly gifts, just as Della and Jim did for each other. However, the monetary value of the gifts the magi brought is not important. What the gifts symbolize is the love that the magi felt because God sent the Messiah to the earth. Likewise, the costliness of the gifts Della and Jim gave each other was not the point: they, too, were "wise" like magi because they poured out their love for each other. The wrong answer in life is to put money first. The right answer is to put love first.

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When Jim returns home, he is astonished and shocked to discover that Della has cut off her beautiful hair. Jim is aware that his gift of combs will be useless for the time being because Della no longer has long hair. Della then explains to her husband that she cut off her hair and sold it in order to buy him a marvelous Christmas gift. Jim responds by hugging Della after as she expresses her love for him. O'Henry writes,

"For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer" (8).

The narrator is essentially drawing attention to the different ways of thinking about value. While a mathematician will tell you that a wealthy person is happier, another insightful individual will tell you that happiness does not depend on monetary wealth or tangible objects. Despite the fact that Jim and Della are extremely poor, they are happy, content, and appreciate one another. Their happiness does not depend on their wealth, which is the point the narrator is making. The real measure of something's value is dependent on individual perspective and cannot be quantified.

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O. Henry is using irony to make a point about the way in which Jim and Della looked at their situation.

Their income was in the range of eight dollars per week - an amount that most people would consider far below poverty level, an amount that most readers would assume would lead to a level of deep depression or frustration or sadness on the part of Jim and Della.

However, the basis of their situation was love, not money. Even if Jim made one million dollars a year and they lived in a fine home with all the luxuries that money would have made possible, they could not have been in more love than they were in the story.

The "wrong answer" that would have been given by "a mathematician or a wit" would have said that the larger income made for a happier existence. Jim and Della knew the "right answer" - that love was the most important thing.

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