What is the main theme of the story "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry?

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An analysis of the title and the last paragraph of the story helps to illuminate the answer to your question. The title of the story refers to the three magi (the three wise men, kings) who came to see Jesus several days after his birth. They brought the Christ child...

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An analysis of the title and the last paragraph of the story helps to illuminate the answer to your question. The title of the story refers to the three magi (the three wise men, kings) who came to see Jesus several days after his birth. They brought the Christ child expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the final paragraph of this story, the narrator returns to a discussion of these three wise men. However, he compares them, now, to Jim and Della, saying,

But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Why would the narrator say that this young couple should be considered magi, that they are the wisest? This is a pretty big claim. Jim and Della each sacrificed the thing most important to them in order to give a beautiful and thoughtful and loving gift to the other. It isn't so much the gift that counts as the feeling and care behind it; so it doesn't matter that their gifts have been rendered unusable by their sacrifices. They realize something that the wise men needn't have because they were rich while Jim and Della are poor: that nothing is worth as much as love, and that there is no personal sacrifice too big to make for the person one loves.

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This is a good question. The main theme of the short story, "Gift of the Magi" is about the wisdom of giving. In other words, O. Henry crafts a masterful story about the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive, which is very counter-intuitive in our society. 

You can see this in the main action of the story. Each main character - Jim and Della - seek to give gifts that are meaningful. Both in the end wind up with gifts that they cannot use. So, the getting is not the point. The giving is the point. The reason for this is simple. When we give, we show love. This is the main point of the story.

Here is one quote, actually the voice of O. Henry:

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. 

 

 

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The primary theme in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" is sacrificial love. This can also be expressed in the old maxim that "it is better to give than receive." The story is told by a narrator from Della's perspective, but her feelings about her husband are clearly the same as his feelings for her.

Jim and Della Young are a poor couple who are very much in love. Each of them really has only one treasure--other than each other, of course. Jim has a pocket watch, which is a family heirloom, and Della has her long, beautiful hair.

It is nearly Christmas time, and each of them have been pondering how to get a worthy gift for the other. Della has been thinking about it for a long time.

Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

Despite her attempts to save enough to get such a gift, she has only managed to save $1.87, not enough to buy a worthy gift. So, Della sells the only thing she has that is of any value, her hair, to get enough money to buy the perfect thing:

It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. 

As you might suspect, she is worried that Jim would not like her short hair, but she bravely faces him and gives him his gift. Jim's reaction to both her hair and the gift is certainly not what she expected. He just laughs good-naturedly, revealing that he sold his watch to buy her a beautiful set of combs for her long hair.

The narrator ends the story by reminding the readers about the Magi, wise men who brought gifts to baby Jesus in the manger. 

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat [apartment]who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Though neither Jim nor Della had to sacrifice for the other, their love was such that they wanted the other person to have something more than they wanted to keep their own treasures.  This is sacrificial love, and it is demonstrated beautifully in this story because both Jim and Della have the same level of love for one another. How tragic it would have been if only one of them had made such a sacrifice; the result would probably not have been laughter. 

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