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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What is the theme of "The Gift of the Magi" and which literary elements support it?

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One theme in "The Gift of the Magi" is sacrificial love. Della and Jim both sell the most precious things they possess in an effort to purchase something truly special for each other.

The story ends with an allusion to the Biblical story of the birth of Christ. The wise men brought precious gifts to the new babe because they recognized the incredible gift of the Christ child. Jim and Della also recognize the incredible gift they have in each other, and they wisely sell their best possessions to demonstrate this love.

To demonstrate how beautiful Della's hair is, the author uses a simile:

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, shining like a falling stream of brown water.

This comparison makes Della's hair seem almost ethereal as it surrounds her body. She has been growing her hair for many years to create such a dramatic effect, which means that it is surely a treasure to her.

When Jim sees Della, the author uses another simile to convey his shock at seeing her loss of hair:

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail.

This simile conveys Jim's complete attentiveness to his wife's new appearance. Della doesn't yet know that he has bought the hair combs she had previously longed for, but this simile establishes the shock he feels when he realizes that he has sold his watch for a now purposeless gift.

The description of the beauty of the combs Jim purchased for her is an example of imagery:

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession.

Della had not believe that she had the financial means to possess such an exquisite luxury as is reflected in these hair combs. This highlights the incredible love Jim has for his wife; though she never asked for them and did not dare hope to possess them, Jim sacrificed his own prized possession to bring joy to his wife.

The ending of the story is an example of situational irony. Readers might expect that these two people, who have sacrificed their most beloved possessions, would be heartbroken when they realize that neither will be able to use the gift which they purchased. Yet instead of sinking into feelings of defeat and hopelessness, they instead move on to dinner, recognizing that their true gift is their relationship—not the gifts. As it turns out, the gifts weren't nearly as important as they had imagined, and they are wise enough to recognize the gift of love.

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