What is the symbolism in "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry?

There are several meaningful symbols in "The Gift of the Magi," the main ones being Della's hair, Jim's watch, and the three magi.

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"The Gift of the Magi" is filled with symbols of material poverty and wealth. The symbols of poverty include the "letter-box into which no letter would go" and the "electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring" in the vestibule of the $8 a week flat inhabited by Jim and Della. Their poverty is also symbolized by the $1.87, repeatedly mentioned as the sum Della has to spend on a gift, and by the narrowness of the pier-glass in which Della has to observe herself "in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips."

The symbols of worldly wealth in the story are Jim's watch and Della's hair, since these are the only things they have which are worth any money. Because they give these things up for two other symbols of wealth, the combs and the chain for the watch, all four also become symbols of self-sacrifice.

At the end of the story, the magi who visited Christ with their gifts are used as symbols of wisdom, while Jim and Della, who sacrificed their most precious possessions for objects which turned out to be useless, symbolize folly. However, in a final turn, the author shows that this type of practical folly has more wisdom in it than mere worldly wisdom. Jim and Della are finally revealed as the symbols of a higher wisdom, which consists of love rather than self-interest and is therefore akin to the wisdom of Christ himself.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 28, 2020
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O. Henry's classic short story "The Gift of the Magi" is rich with symbolism and imagery. By the way the characters are represented and the circumstances in which they live in are described, the readers can conclude that Della and Jim are quite poor; the old carpet, the broken appliances and apparatus, their worn out out clothes, their small and humble home, their lack of funds—all of these descriptions symbolize their struggles with poverty. Despite their day-to-day hardships, however, Della and Jim are very much in love and live a harmonious, happy, and fulfilling life; their determination to buy each other gifts is essentially a symbol of that powerful love that they feel for one another.

Della's hair and Jim's watch are two very important symbols in the story, as they represent Della's and Jim's willingness to sacrifice something that they hold very dear to their hearts and even consider their most prized possessions in order to make their significant other happy. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, knowing that the gold watch is very important to Jim, as it symbolizes his love for and devotion to his family. Jim, on the other hand, sells his watch, which was passed down from generation to generation in his family, to buy Della ornamental combs for her gorgeous, long hair, knowing that Della loves and cherishes her hair, as it symbolizes her beauty and grace. In the end, their plan backfires, but they realize that nothing is futile—her hair will grow back, and he'll eventually pawn his watch back—and that love is actually the greatest gift of all.

Finally, the three magi that O. Henry mentions symbolize the people's ability to be generous, kind and caring; the three magi are the first gift bearers in the Bible—they were the first people who came to visit Jesus when he was born and gave him precious gift to honor his birth and bless him with good fortune. Their gifts were a symbol of love and appreciation, and the practice of gift giving became a much loved tradition during the holiday season.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 24, 2020
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In addition to the gifts themselves being symbolic, Jim and Della are also symbolic.  The title helps us understand the parallel between Jim and Della and the wise men from the story of Jesus's birth.  Just as the original magi brought gifts to Jesus (literally the first Christmas gifts), this young couple gives each other gifts too.  But there is a big difference between the original magi and Jim and Della: the original wise men were kings who did not have to make sacrifices in order to bring rich and precious gifts to the Christ child.  Jim and Della, however, are quite poor and must sacrifice the things most important to them so each can give a gift to the other. Ultimately, this makes their gifts that much more meaningful and valuable.  Thus, the narrator says,

Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise.  Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones.  They are the magi.

The narrator suggests Jim and Della are actually wiser than the wise men because they understand love makes a gift truly worth giving.  The two recognize the sacrifice made makes their gifts so valuable, not because the gifts themselves are worth a lot of money.

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In "The Gift of the Magi" O' Henry uses symbolism in reference to the Three Magi (The 3 Wisemen).  They come bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  The gold is a symbol of love, the frankincense and myrrh were used to burn and had a sweet aroma. They were also ingredients used in developing medicines.  These gifts were not only practical, but precious.

Jim and Della gave gifts that were also the same.  They were prized possessions but the gifts they bought were practical; combs for her hair and a chain for his watch.  They bought these things to add to the importance of their possessions, but in the end the greatest gift they had was their love for each other.

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Both Jim and Della gave up their most prized possession for one another; this symbolizes the way that lovers give all to one another.

Of course, the specific objects can be seen as having symbolic meaning; he gives away his watch (all his time); she gives away her hair (her beauty).

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