Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" might be the most famous short story of all time. It's certainly the most famous of O. Henry's, standing out among many stories with surprise endings, like "The Last Leaf" and "After Twenty Years".
Its not-to-be-missed ending has made it a favorite of many readers. If you haven't read the story yet, or don't know the ending, please don't spoil it for yourself. At around 2,100 words, it offers a large payoff for a small time investment.
This article contains:
- a summary,
- a look at themes,
- Biblical alllusions, and
- the meaning of the title.
Summary of "The Gift of the Magi"
Della's scrimping has allowed her to save one dollar and eighty-seven cents. Tomorrow is Christmas. She flops onto her shabby couch and cries.
She lives in a furnished flat at a rent of eight dollars a week. The mailbox and doorbell are broken. Her husband, Jim, makes $20 a week.
Della powders her cheeks after her cry and then looks out the window. She had been planning on getting Jim a nice Christmas present, something worthy of him.
Suddenly, Della moves from the window to the mirror. She lets her long hair down. It's one of the couple's two prized possessions, the other one being Jim's heirloom watch. Her hair falls below her knees. She quickly puts it up again and pauses as a tear falls.
She puts on her old coat and hat, and hurries down to the street. She reaches a hair goods shop and enters. She asks the owner if she will buy her hair. They reach an agreement for $20.
After two hours of careful searching through the stores, Della finds the perfect gift—a platinum fob chain. It suits Jim and his exquisite watch exactly. It has an unadorned simplicity and quality. She pays $21 for it.
When she gets home, Della takes out her curling irons and does her hair as nicely as she can. She looks at herself critically and wonders how Jim will react to the change.
At 7 PM, Della has coffee ready and is prepared to make supper. She waits by the door with the fob chain in her hand. She hopes Jim will still think she's pretty.
Jim enters looking serious. His gaze is fixed on Della. He has a peculiar expression that she can't interpret. She's afraid. She goes to him and explains herself. Jim struggles to understand that she's cut her hair and that it's gone.
Eventually, he snaps out of his stupor and hugs Della. He takes a package from his coat and puts it on the table. He assures her that her haircut won't affect his feelings for her. He says if she unwraps her gift, she will understand why he was so out of it earlier.
Della excitedly opens the package, screams with joy, and then cries hysterically. It's a beautiful set of expensive combs that she had looked at longingly in a shop window. She holds them and tells Jim her hair grows fast.
Realizing Jim hasn't seen his present yet, she hands it to him. She asks for his watch so they can see how it looks.
Jim sits on the couch instead and says they should put their presents away for a while. He sold his watch to buy the combs.
The narrator ends by comparing their gifts to the gifts of the wise men to the Babe in the manger.
Theme: Unselfish Love
The overwhelming feeling from the story, amplified by the surprise ending, is of the young couple's unselfish love for each other.
This is introduced immediately when we're told that Della had been saving for months for Jim's gift. Her desire was strong enough to push through the embarrassment of shaving a penny or two off her vegetable and butcher's bills.
Knowing she doesn't have enough to get a nice present for Jim makes Della cry. She wants something "fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim." Clearly, she holds her husband in high esteem and wants to express her love to him.
Della lacks fine material things. Her hair is her prized possession, so it's a considerable sacrifice to give it up. We saw how difficult it was for her when, before leaving her flat, she "faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two" fell to the carpet. Her concern is twofold—she'll be losing her prized possession, and she doesn't know if Jim will like the change.
It's also noteworthy that Della didn't think of selling her hair until the day before Christmas. She would have known before this that she wouldn't have enough money, but selling her hair doesn't occur to her until the urgency is at its peak. This is obviously a last resort idea.
Up until Jim enters the story, we're left wondering if this tender feeling is one-sided.
When he snapped out of his confusion, he gave Della a long hug. He told her that no change to her hair would change his feelings for her.
When his gift is revealed—expensive combs that his wife had admired—we know that he had a similar desire to get his wife a worthy present. What's more, it tells us he noticed that she wanted them. He paid attention to her and wanted to please her.
Jim's selflessness is heightened by the fact that he needs a new overcoat and gloves.
When it's revealed that he had to sell his prized possession to buy them, we know that his love is as unselfish as his wife's.
When the twist of the ending hits us, it's hard not to be touched by the unselfish love that each showed. They each sacrificed their best for the other.
A secondary theme that is necessary for the story to work is poverty.
Jim only earns $20 a week. His rent is $8 a week. 40% of the couple's income goes to rent. This doesn't leave much for the basics, let alone any extras.
Previously, he had been making $30 a week. It's possible the pay cut precipitated Della's scrimping and saving. We're told she had been saving for months, not the whole year. They might still be learning to adjust to their reduced income.
Their poverty is established in the description of their flat and neighborhood. The mailbox and the doorbell are broken. When Della looks out the window she sees "a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard." There's nothing to be cheerful about here.
Della's jacket and hat are both old. Jim needs a new overcoat and doesn't have gloves.
This is despite the fact that Jim works long days. We're told he's never late getting home, and he doesn't get home until 7 PM.
Clearly, Della and Jim are barely getting by. Their circumstances make it all the more moving that their focus is on each other rather than material things.
Biblical Allusions in "The Gift of the Magi"
The most obvious Biblical allusions are in the title and the title's explanation in the concluding paragraph. There are two other allusions that make this main one seem less tacked on.
They occur when the narrator is describing the splendor of Della's hair and Jim's watch. We're told Della's hair would outshine the Queen of Sheba's jewels and gifts. Likewise, Jim's watch would make King Solomon envious. When visiting Solomon, who's considered the richest of Israel's kings, Sheba brought him an assortment of expensive gifts. This comparison stresses the value of the young couple's prized possessions.
Meaning of the Title
The meaning of the title is explained at the end. Despite this, it's still possible to miss the meaning if it's not read carefully.
The giving of Della and Jim isn't being strictly compared to the giving of the magi, as if they're equivalent. Before the full gift reveal, the narrator says,"The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them." What wasn't among them?
The difference between eight dollars a week and a million a year, as we're told earlier in that paragraph. So, what is the difference?
The difference is in the resources that were available to the givers. The gifts of the magi were wise, possibly because they were generic, valuable things that could be exchanged for other things. The young couple's gifts were unwise—materially they would have been better off if they hadn't gotten each other anything. But, the narrator tells us, "Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest." Rather than being equivalent to the magi's, Della and Jim's gifts are superior. The value is in the unselfish love displayed, not the material gain.
Pure Panic on April 01, 2020:
I created an account just to thank you for having an easily accessed analysis of "The Gift of the Magi." Great work.