illustration of two people, a woman and a man, looking at one another in profile with an ornate hair comb between them

The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry

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Analysis

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Set the day before Christmas, “The Gift of the Magi” explores notions of wealth and generosity in the context of giving and receiving gifts. The title is a reference to the biblical Magi, often called the three wise men or the three kings, who travel to Bethlehem in order to pay tribute to the infant Jesus Christ. They present him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they kneel before him in worship and adoration. This presentation of gifts originated the Christian tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas. Though biblical scholars continue to debate the specific symbolism of the Magi’s gifts, they are commonly thought to represent Christ’s dominion over both the mortal and divine realms, with the gold representing the earthly wealth of kings, the frankincense representing the sacrifice Christ would eventually make on behalf of humanity, and the myrrh representing his death after crucifixion. 

Indeed, the gifts themselves are less important than what they represent as gestures: the Magi’s gifts and their willingness to kneel before the newborn Christ is a recognition of his status as the King of the Jews and the son of God. Though the narrator humorously dismisses Jim and Della’s story as an “uneventful chronicle of two foolish children,” he praises their wisdom as being on par with that of the biblical wise men. This suggests that the selfless love they display for one another through their sacrifices is more valuable than anything money can buy. 

Building on the biblical connotations established by the title, “The Gift of the Magi” takes the form of a parable, or a short, didactic tale designed to illustrate a moral or philosophical principle. Parables are common throughout the Bible, as they are designed to impart a moral lesson to the reader. Jim and Della may be poor in terms of their material circumstances, but they are abundantly wealthy in matters of love and generosity. Henry remarks that “a mathematician or a wit” would fail to recognize the value of Jim and Della‘s relationship, but he encourages readers to recognize just how rich they are. Ultimately, the story praises unconditional love, encouraging readers to give generously and love selflessly. 

At its core, the story is a rejection of materialism. Though this may at first seem contrary, given the fact that Jim and Della are preoccupied with buying one another expensive gifts, the outcome of the story reinforces the importance of intangible intentions and feelings over tangible possessions. Jim and Della begin the story with two prized possessions between them: Della’s hair and Jim’s watch. Their respective decisions to sacrifice these possessions in order to purchase a thoughtful gift is a rejection of materialism in that the end goal is simply to make the other happy. 

Thus, the true gifts that they give each other are not the watch chain or the combs but rather the proof that their love for one another is stronger than any material attachments. Essentially, though their sacrifices are in some sense foolish, it is the gesture of giving—and the emotion behind that gesture—that enables them to obtain a wisdom unavailable to those who are preoccupied with material things. Furthermore, Jim’s final declaration is a hopeful one, as he recognizes that their poverty is confined to the “present”; just as Della’s hair will grow back, the Dillingham Youngs will have many chances to improve their material circumstances in the future.

Adding to the didactic core of the story is the unique narration style preferred by Henry. Often called narrative intrusion or authorial intrusion, the style relies on a third-person omniscient narrator who interjects their own views and observations into the story. This style of narration creates a sense of shared intimacy between the reader and the narrator, as the narrator imparts Jim and Della's story as though he were talking to a friend. Indeed, the narrator has a seemingly independent personality removed from the purely observational role of a traditional third-person narrator, and he occasionally addresses the reader directly as “you.” 

This narration style also enables the narrator to interject his own opinions and interpretations of events without breaking the flow of the narration. The narrator’s obvious affection for Jim and Della, despite their “foolishness,” pervades the story and gives readers the ability to view their actions with a sort of fond humor as opposed to dismay or sadness. Filtered through a sympathetic narrator, Henry’s use of situational irony and a surprise ending functions less like a betrayal of the reader's expectations than a fulfillment of Della’s expressed affection for Jim. Had Jim not matched Della’s sacrifice, Della’s commitment and devotion to him would have felt hollow. However, because their generosity and love is mutual, the story retains its warmth and becomes comically ironic rather than tragically ironic.

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