The Gift of the Magi Themes
The main themes in "The Gift of the Magi" are generosity, love, and wealth.
- Generosity: Generosity drives both Jim and Della, who, despite living in poverty, want to give each other meaningful gifts.
- Love: Della and Jim both willingly sacrifice their most prized possessions in order to provide each other with nice gifts, highlighting the triumph of love over greed or materialism.
- Wealth: Della and Jim's material poverty contrasts with the richness of their love for one another, indicating that material possessions are not the only type of wealth.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
“The Gift of the Magi” is a Christmas story, and it functions as a parable about both the nature of love and the true meaning of generosity. Della’s earnest desire to buy a meaningful Christmas gift for Jim drives the plot of the story, and Jim’s reciprocity of that sentiment is shown when he presents Della with the tortoise-shell combs. Both Jim and Della give selflessly, without expectation of reciprocity. Their sole motivation is to make the other person happy. This, combined with the personal meaning imbued in each of the gifts, conveys the story’s moral that true generosity is both selfless and thoughtful.
Della scours every store in town for two hours before finding the perfect gift for Jim. She notes the similarities between the simple yet valuable watch chain and her understated but loving husband. The watch chain is not merely a shiny trinket; instead, it represents Della’s regard for Jim, and the inherent value she sees in him. Similarly, the combs are not merely an extravagant bauble meant to impress Della; instead, they represent Jim’s commitment to Della and to their relationship. He willingly sells his most valuable possession, handed down from his father, in order to buy Della the combs, suggesting that for Jim, Della and their future family are the most important things in his life.
The combs and watch chain can also be read as promises for the future: though the couple currently lives in difficult financial circumstances, both the combs and the watch chain are symbols of Della and Jim’s optimism that their circumstances will change. Ultimately, the spirit of giving has less to do with the material gifts themselves and more to do with the sentiment behind them. Della and Jim’s generosity towards each other is embodied by their choices of gifts, which speak to the depths of their appreciation and love for each other. The narrator ends the story by stating that so long as people love truly and give generously, then they will have given wisely.
Henry contrasts the warmth that exists between Della and Jim with their bleak surroundings. His prose emphasizes the drabness of the world around them through such images as the “gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.” Their apartment does not “beggar description,” and both the mail slot and the door buzzer are broken. However, although their home is shabby, Della’s earnest desire to buy Jim a nice Christmas gift suffuses the otherwise bleak scene with warmth and joy, and her elation after sacrificing her hair in order to buy him a platinum watch chain overwhelms any potential misgivings she may have had about selling her prized tresses. Jim’s reassurance that no “haircut,” “shave,” or “shampoo” could make him love “[his] girl any less” cements the triumph of love over material concerns; the young couple’s physical and economic circumstances are subject to the changes wrought by time and fortune, but their love for one another is unassailable.
The couple could have spent the holidays lamenting their circumstances and their inability to afford expensive gifts. Instead, Della has saved up pennies for months in the hopes of making Jim happy with a gift that showcases just how much she loves him. Her earnest effort and simple desire to make Jim happy highlight the ability of love to provide a source of hope and optimism even in dismal circumstances. Della and Jim are young, naive, and at times foolish, but their love for one another sustains them through economic hardship, as it will undoubtedly sustain them through any future turmoil. Though some may view the outcome of the story as tragic, Della and Jim are able to find the humor and joy in the situation. Ultimately, it is not the combs or the platinum watch chain that matter. Rather, Della and Jim’s mutual expressions of selfless affection represent the greatest gift of all: unconditional love.
Henry foregrounds the drab, worn-down circumstances in which Della and Jim live in order to create a distinction between material wealth and immaterial wealth. Between their second-hand furniture, cheap apartment, and inability to afford new clothes, Jim and Della are undoubtedly impoverished. Jim’s decreased pay and the economic circumstances of early-twentieth-century New York mean that times are tough, and Della has had to bargain for every last penny that she has saved up for Jim’s gift. These depictions of the couple's poverty only serve to emphasize the value of the two possessions that they do take pride in: Della’s hair and Jim’s watch.
The narrator suggests that Della’s hair is beautiful enough to devalue all of the wealth of the Queen of Sheba and that Jim’s watch is fine enough to be envied by King Solomon. For a young couple living in such economically strained circumstances, it is unlikely that their possessions truly rival those of biblical royalty. However, the items are considered valuable for more than just their material worth. Della’s hair represents her beauty and femininity, and for it to have reached such a length, she must have been growing it out for years. Jim’s watch is an heirloom that was passed down from his father. The sentimentality and personal value of these possessions is greater than any monetary value that could be ascribed to them.
It is fitting, then, that both Jim and Della decide to sacrifice their prized belongings not in order to change their material circumstances but rather to buy a sentimentally motivated gift for their partner. Though the combs and the watch chain are given monetary value, it is the sentiment behind each gift that makes them truly meaningful. Della and Jim may remain materially impoverished, but their exchange of functionally useless Christmas gifts only serves to emphasize the wealth of love that exists between them.