Discuss the symbolism in "The Gifts of the Magi" by O. Henry.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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O. Henry is considered one of the great short story writers today.  His stories were optimistic, humorous, and best known for the twists at the end. 

“The Gift of the Magi,” published in 1905, has found its place in the classic list of short stories.  Its memorable lovers and their Christmas gifts find a place in any reader’s heart.

Giving the perfect present is something everyone would like to find for his/her loved ones.  There are so many questions involved with that present: how much? Do they need it? Do they want it? Does it cost too much? Is it worth it?

The story is narrated by a third person limited omniscient point of view.  The entire story basically belongs to Della.  Although Jim does engage with Della, the thoughts and action circulate around her character. At times, the narrator becomes a separate entity without including Della or Jim’s point of view at all.

Symbolically, the poverty that the couple lives in is emphasized almost with every paragraph.  In contrast with the couple’s deep love for each other, the author provides the details of their outward circumstances. 

  • The broken doorbell
  • The malfunctioning mailbox
  • The dullness of the apartment with its worn carpet
  • The clothes of the characters—the old brown jacket and hat
  • Jim’s worn overcoat and no gloves
  • Della's mirror

Each of these items symbolizes the dingy world that the couple lives in; yet, their love changes the drabness into their warm loving home together.

But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della.

The crux of the story involves the sacrifices of the young couple for their love.  Della started with $1.87 to buy Jim's Christmas gift. Della's beautiful long hair that Jim loves so much and is her crowning glory becomes the "saving grace" for her gift.   She loves her husband so much and wants to give him the perfect gift. Faced with the decision to cut and sell her hair, Della offers a tear or two; but without a much stress gives over her hair so that she can get Jim a fob for his precious watch.  Della’s only fear is that Jim will not think that she is pretty without her hair. 

The other side of the coin comes from Jim.  He is just as devoted to Della as she is to him.  Jim’s job does not pay much, but as long as Della is waiting at home for him, nothing else matters.  The reader learns that Jim willingly pawned his watch to buy the beautiful combs to accentuate her long hair. 

Both the hair and the watch, the most precious items each character possesses, are symbols of the sacrifice that the two lovers were willing to make for to give joy to the other.  Ironically, it did not work out as they hoped that it would; each gift has become useless: no hair and no watch.    On the other hand, hair grows and pawns can be retrieved.  It was "the thought that counts" as the cliché goes.

As to the magi, the three wise men were the first real gift givers.  Their gifts symbolize the finest items that could be given in the world at the time of Jesus’s birth. In the same respect, Della and Jim’s gifts were the best that they could give for the other person. The comparison of Jim and Della's possessions to those of Biblical figures helps bring out how precious those two items are to their owners.

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