Why does the writer call Della and Jim foolish and wise at the same time in "The Gift of the Magi"?
In the final paragraph, the narrator says that Jim and Della "were not wise." A few lines later, he says that, "Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise." This paradox, I think, has to do with who is doing the judging, who is perceiving Jim and Della. From society's perspective, from a materialist perspective, their actions may not be very wise: they each sacrificed the most valuable and precious thing they owned so that they would be able to purchase a gift for the other. It goes against common sense, perhaps, to sell one's most precious thing in order to buy a present for someone else. Further, it could be argued that when one loves, one need not buy a gift to show it; it isn't wise to think that love can best show itself with a present.
However, from a different perspective, the fact that Jim and Della were willing to sacrifice their most precious belongings in order that they could do something kind for the other one makes them very wise. The love they feel for one another is so strong that it trumps any selfish desire to hold on to the objects they value. They see that their material possessions are of less value than their love, and so they are willing to sacrifice them. This ordering of values is certainly very wise.
Jim and Della are wise because of their reaction to finding out their spouse could not appreciate their gift. They are foolish because each sold his sentimentally valuable possession for one with monetary value.
James sells his watch to buy a set of combs for Della’s hair, and Della sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Both gifts end up being meaningless, but the couple appreciates the thought.
The narrator compares the young couple to the Magi, who brought gifts to baby Jesus.
Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. (p. 6)
The implication is that the gift-givers in the story are wise in their own way, because they were giving to someone they loved. Because Jim and Della “most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house” (p. 6), they demonstrated their love to each other. That was the way they were wise.