Why does O. Henry call Jim and Della the Magi?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

O. Henry was writing a Christmas story which would probably be published in the Christmas issue of his newspaper. The story contains many references to the Christmas story told in the New Testament. There is, of course, a big difference between Jim and Della Young and the three kings, or...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

O. Henry was writing a Christmas story which would probably be published in the Christmas issue of his newspaper. The story contains many references to the Christmas story told in the New Testament. There is, of course, a big difference between Jim and Della Young and the three kings, or Magi, in the Bible. The Magi were very wealthy men and brought the baby Jesus valuable presents, including gold. Jim and Della are poor, but O. Henry twice maintains that they are, figuratively speaking, richer than the richest men and women in the Bible.

In the first instance, O. Henry compares Jim to King Solomon and Della to the Queen of Sheba, whose famous encounter is related in the Old Testament (1 Kings 10).

Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

This is O. Henry's wildest hyperbole, but it serves to show how much Jim values his watch and how much Della values her hair. After Jim and Della realize they sacrificed their greatest treasures without being able to benefit each other, O. Henry expresses the moral of his Christmas story in similar hyperbole.

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. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

O. Henry, of course, is using poetic license. He does not mean that the Youngs are literally like the wealthy kings in the Christmas story, but rather that Jim and Della are in a sense richer than King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and the three Magi because they possess the most valuable thing in the world: their love for each other. Many readers must have recognized the truth in all this poetic hyperbole, because O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" is the most popular story he ever wrote.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Magi are also known as "the Wise men". As far as O Henry, he used the play on words by calling them "foolish" at the beginning because of their youth, their seeming immaturity, and their situation.

However, it makes all the most sense at the end to understand how these three qualities are precisely what makes them so wise as far as love, commitment, and sacrifice. These latter are three characteristics that many people lack, and yet, they not only have them, but took them to the utmost for each other. This is how Jim and Della are magi (wise).

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Think about how these gifts were given: each sacrificed his or her most precious possession in order to obtain the gift the other would cherish the most. The Magi have been described variously throughout biblical and secular history, but most descriptions include some reference to their "priestliness." The acts that Jim and Della perform become sorts of rituals, in that the gifts have a symbolic meaning, possibly of a greater love.

Reread the ending a couple of times, and see if you can come up with your own response based on your emotional reaction to what happened, and how the characters themselved dealt with it. Did they become angry or resentful? No. They understood, and went on with their lives with the understanding that the benefits of the gifts would come later, as in the original Christmas story.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Magi, or the three wise men who come and kneel before the infant Jesus are a symbol of humility.  These three kings come from afar to pay homage to a child born in a stable.  They come to worship him as he lay in a manger filled with straw and surrounded by animals. 

Their wisdom transcends the poverty of the infant child before them, the Magi, dressed in fine robes, feel honored to stand in his sight.  They bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, all very valuable, but these gifts do not match the magnitude of the birth of the Savior and the Magi know this.

The Magi, like Jim and Delia, are symbols of humility and humbleness of spirit.  They sacrifice their most prized possessions to obtain money to buy a special Christmas gift for the person they love most in the world. 

They want to honor each other by showing their love through gifts chosen with great care, just like the Magi did when they came to the baby Jesus's side to witness the miracle of his birth.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on