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The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry

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Why does O. Henry compare Jim and Della in his short story "The Gift of the Magi" to biblical magi?

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The magi are also well-known as the Three Wise Men.  According to the story of the magi, these men traveled far and long in order to find Jesus and give their gifts to Him.  The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were very precious during that time.  They were also a contrast to the poverty into which Jesus was born; He could not use these gifts. However, the gifts and the long journey were great sacrifices for these three men.  They symbolized the deep love they had for Jesus.  Likewise, Della and Jim each sacrificed their most prized possessions—Jim’s watch and Della’s beautiful hair. The gifts may not seem wise to the reader because the two are unable to use them.  However, O. Henry calls the young newlyweds wise and compares them to the magi.  Their gifts were given to symbolize the deep love they had for each other.  Even in their extreme poverty, they were rich.

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O. Henry's beautiful Christmas tale draws many allusions to the biblical magi, or wise men, and on so many levels, in his story "The Gift of the Magi." First, the magi from the bible can be compared to Jim and Della because they all sacrifice so much in obtaining and giving their chosen gifts. The Magi gave very expensive ore, metals, and oils to the baby Jesus while also traveling for years to find him. Jim and Della are like the magi by this same token because they both sacrifice something very dear to them in order to obtain and give their gifts. To Jim, his family watch was priceless; and to Della, her hair symbolized the time and care it takes to maintain such long locks, but also represented her femininity and role as a young bride. Authors uses allusions, or parallels, such as these to drive home a connection between the characters and universal human truth. At the time, many of O. Henry's readers were Christian of some kind and many understood the sacrifices taken in order to give gifts at Christmas time. By giving the title to Jim and Della's story a connection to the wise men, the audience is consciously aware of the connection that the author wants to make. Part of the conclusion that can be drawn between the title and the story is that no matter how wealthy or poor a person is, giving a gift with love is the most precious of sentiments; and, you don't have to be a magi to give a gift that matters.

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I believe that O. Henry initially intended to draw a closer analogy between the Youngs and the story of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. Jim and Della Young can hardly be compared with the Magi in the Bible. The Three Kings, as they are also called in the New Testament, brought gifts to the baby Jesus. O. Henry gives a very interesting hint that the common denominator between the two stories is a baby. Here is the one significant sentence:

Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family!

This is Della thinking to herself. She does not think he is burdened with a wife but to be burdened with a family. This seems to suggest plainly that Della is pregnant. It also seems to imply that she has not yet told Jim about it. It should hardly come as a surprise that Della is expecting a baby, what with all the hugging and kissing that goes on in their flat. 

O. Henry apparently intended to equate Della's as yet unborn baby with the baby in the New Testament who was born in a manger inside a stable. But he must have realized that he would be risking offending a great many readers who believed that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus was the son of God. Some readers might even get the idea that the author was implying that Della's baby would be the long-awaited second coming of Christ.

The sentence quoted above is interesting in its construction. Della thinks, "...and to be burdened with a family!" In other words, Jim is going to be burdened but he is not burdened yet. Della is pregnant. Jim probably doesn't know it because she is reluctant to tell him. (These things happen.) She obviously doesn't have the baby yet, because she is able to go rushing out of the flat to sell her hair.

With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Many people have asked questions about how the story of the Magi applies to the story of Jim and Della Young. In its final form it does not apply to them very suitably. They are poor, while the Magi were all kings and were able to bring the baby luxury gifts which included gold. The Magi did not give gifts to each other, as Jim and Della do. The Magi did not have to make any sacrifices to raise money. It would appear that there is a hidden secret in this story. O. Henry started out to draw an analogy between a contemporary young couple who were going to have a baby and a couple named Joseph and Mary who had to spend the night in a stable  because there was no room at the inn. What the two couples have in common is that they are both poor. 

O. Henry had to be content with suggesting that the gift of the Magi was Jim and Della's spiritual enlightenment with the realization that their love for each other was more important than any material possessions. Della is terribly afraid that Jim will cease to love her because she looks so strange without her beautiful hair. She needs his love at this time in particular. She is not unlike many young wives who find themselves pregnant and are afraid to break the news to their young husbands because they don't know how their men will react. Della's anxiety throughout the story, as well as her strong motivation to please her husband, is probably more attributable to her unrevealed pregnancy than to any strong desire to buy him a nice Christmas present.

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Jim and Della Young are the only significant characters in "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. They are a young couple who love each other very much and, though they once had more money, are now worrying about how to get each other a gift worthy of the the other because they have no money to spare. 

Della has long, luxuriant, and beautiful hair; it is something she values and which her husband admires. Jim has a pocket watch which was handed down from his grandfather and father; it is his prized possession. Because they have nothing else to give, they each give their prized possession to get a gift worthy of the one they love. Della sells her hair to buy Jim the perfect chain for his watch so he will no longer have to hide his prized possession in his pocket because he does not have a chain for it. Jim, we discover at the end of the story, sold his watch to buy the lovely hair combs Della has admired so she can adorn her beautiful hair.

These sacrificial acts are what prompt the narrator of the story to compare Della and Jim to the Magi. In the Bible, the Magi are the three kings who travel for years, following a star, just to see the Christ child which they know was a fulfillment of prophecy that a Savior would be born. They bring Jesus costly gifts, but their greater gift to him was the sacrifice of their journey, their willingness to leave their homes and come to him.

The narrator ends the story with this explanation:

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. 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. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Jim and Della's sacrificial love is like the sacrifices the Magi made for Jesus out of love. Both wanted to honor someone they loved with worthy gifts, and both had to sacrifice to do it, so the comparison is apt. 

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