The Gift of the Magi Questions and Answers
by O. Henry

The Gift of the Magi book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What is the significance of the number three in the story "The Gift of the Magi"?

The number three is significant "The Gift of the Magi" because it represents a motif from the Bible. In the Bible, three is a symbol of completeness and certainty. By alluding to the three magi who visited the infant Jesus with gifts and by repeating three times that Della and Jim gave the "wisest" gifts of all, O. Henry adds a sense spiritual certainty or blessedness to the wisdom of their sacrifices.

Expert Answers info

D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2016

write11,497 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

At the beginning of the story, Della counts out the money she has saved for Jim, a dollar and eighty-seven cents, including sixty pennies, three times. Three in the Bible is a symbol of completeness and certainty, so this painstaking counting symbolizes the reality of the small amount of money Della has. A short time later, the word "gray" is repeated three times as Della looks out the window

dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.

The repetition of "gray" three times symbolizes the completeness of Della's gray or depressed mood and foreshadows that she will go to great lengths to get a gift for Jim.

However, the most important use of three is at the end. The narrator mentions the magi who visited Jesus and brought him gifts. O. Henry does not say that there were three wise men, but every original reader would have known that. The narrator then repeats three times that Jim and Della's gift giving, though it might look foolish to the world—Della sold her beautiful hair to buy a watch chain for Jim's beloved watch, and Jim sold his watch to buy a comb and brush set for Della—was the "wisest" gift of all.

It was the wisest because, by sacrificing what each loved best, they demonstrated their love for each other in an unmistakable way, just as the three magi did for Jesus. By repeating "wisest" three times, the narrator adds completion and certainty to that message.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial