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The Gift of the Magi | Summary and Analysis

Summary of The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

One of the most widely read short stories in the world, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, first published in 1905, revolves around a couple who, in their attempt to please each other and make Christmas memorable ironically end up sacrificing their prized possessions without achieving the said purpose. It is a sweet and simple story about love’s proportional relationship with sacrifice where O. Henry delivers his take on the contemporary set up of gift-giving and following the age old traditions.

O. Henry is the pen name of late 19th and early 20th century American writer William Sydney Porter who was famous for creating narratives that employed comic twists and ironic ends to his serious and sentimental stories. Central to his works are the working class men and women who fight against the depriving socio-economic conditions of their day

The Gift of the Magi | Summary

This is a short and sweet story about Youngs, a married couple experiencing adverse economic crisis during the festive period of Christmas. Della and Jim love and care for each other and so the wife is adamant to gift her husband a memorable token of that love. But the monetary crunch tears apart her aspirations and drives her to sell the most valuable possession a woman could possibly own i.e. her beautiful locks. She cuts her hair short to gain an additional twenty dollars to her savings consisting of one dollar and eighty seven cents and at last buys a gold watch chain. The short hair however turn out to be a shock for Jim who gets beautiful studded combs for Della to caress her long tresses with the money received after selling his ancestral pocket watch. In order to project their love to each other, the couple sacrifices their valuables which the narrator initially views as foolish but towards the end ascertains their selflessness towards each other and hence ascribes to them the status of magi—the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus Christ at his birth in Bethlehem.


The Gift of the Magi | Analysis

The narrative is a second person narration which invites the reader to observe the events in the couple’s life along with the narrator. A direct interaction of the narrator with the reader allows for some necessary pauses in the course of story to reflect on the actions of the characters. Like a guide, the narrator introduces to the setting and characters to set a ground and context for the events ahead. The story’s setting could be traced back to the onset of the 20th century where America was progressing in various industries but the prosperity was not shared by everyone equally. The labour force was often unemployed and was underpaid despite serving additional working hours. The instance of declining wages is best exhibited in Jim’s reduced weekly salary from $30 to $20 that hinders Della’s savings and predicts her inability to celebrate Christmas wholeheartedly that year. Thus, scarcity of income not only affected the man himself but also his family.

The main idea of this short story is to interrogate the gift-exchanging rituals as a cultural hegemony existing since the time of Christ. Referring to the title, magi were the people who travelled to Bethlehem with gifts for the newborn Jesus Christ and hence were also the ‘wise’ people who are seen as the forerunners of the custom of offering presents on Christmas. Interpreting the story in this context, Della and Jim selling off their hair and watch respectively to earn a few extra dollars to buy presents for each other is both sweet and imprudent. The selfless intentions ascribe their thoughtless act as innocent but the ironic twist of both ending up losing their valuables strands the gifts as useless. The beaded combs and the gold watch chain then become symbols of impulsivity as the couple didn’t share their intentions with one another and ventured with their own plan.

Greater value of a commodity lies in its simplicity and plainness, something even Della believed too as her first thought after looking at the gold chain catered too its plain and simple appearance which very well aligned with her husband’s personality. However, by inclining towards material gesture over emotional affection, she becomes a representative of the contemporary culture of gifting where the object wrapped inside holds precedence over the sentiments and efforts to find it. But the narrator at the end maintains that despite facing economic adversity and foolishly spending money over gifts to celebrate Christmas, the couple was still wise of all their contemporaries who otherwise indulged in mindless exchanges. The motive that drives Della and Jim to sacrifice their treasured belongings for each other successfully minimizes the unfortunate consequence of their act by presenting it a concrete proof of their love.

The Gift of the Magi | Themes

Love – Love as an emotion often requires meaningful gestures to ensure its presence in a relationship, especially in the institution of marriage. But it should never be replaced with materiality. Showering love does not necessarily involve gifting the loved ones expensive presents because it will be an invalid judgment of the intensity of love one harbours for the other. Simple and sweet gestures such as cooking his/her favourite meal, singing one’s favourite song or even participating in activities that one’s partner cherishes in can reflect true love. But Della and Jim’s self imposed compulsion towards one another concerning gifting each other out of the world presents directs them to sacrifice their valuable possessions only to realise the inherent vanity and foolishness of their act. While the act may be deemed unnecessary and unintelligent, the pure intention clouding it cannot be dismissed which makes them the wisest people on earth in the modern set up of gift exchange.

Sacrifice – Love and sacrifice are the two sides of the coin of relationship. If the story is an evocative tale of love and selflessness, it is also about sacrifice a partner readily makes for the other. Despite knowing how valuable the hair and the watch are to Della and Jim respectively, the couple decides to let go of their proud possessions for Christmas presents to be gifted to each other. A moment’s happiness takes precedence over years of security they rendered to these material yet priceless assets. It is the sacrifice which guards their otherwise impulsive and injudicious act of selling off their cherished belongings in order to buy happiness for one another. It also becomes a medium for both Della and Jim to affirm the love they harbour for each other which caters to no boundaries and thus no obstacles.

The Gift of the Magi | Characters

James Dillingham Young – Affectionately addressed as Jim y his wife Della, he is the representative of the American working class who are the victims of global recession and thus declining wages. With high rents, reduced income and the festive season looming over, he decides to sell off his ancestral watch to gift his wife a beautiful studded comb for Christmas as a token of his love. The desperation to shower love through material gifts causes him to commit a blunder of sacrificing his valuable remembrance of his forefathers only to let the act go in vain as his wife chops off her hair short and leaving the comb useless for her. Both of his cherished possessions get lost, leaving him to find solace in the truth that his wife loves him whole-heartedly.

Della Young – She is Jim’s wife who loves him selflessly and hence readily sacrifices her beautiful long mane to buy a Christmas present for him. Due to economic depravity, she is unable to save a large sum of money to celebrate one of the most important days of the year but never complains to her husband regarding the lack of monetary security. Instead, she takes over the responsibility to prevent any obstacles in the tradition of gift-giving. Her emotions overpower her rationality that drives her to find happiness in materiality over gestures.


The Gift of the Magi | Literary Devices

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

“He was as quiet as a hunting dog when it is near a bird.”


The narrator conveys about the “Youngs [who] were very proud of two things which they owned. One thing was Jim’s gold watch. It had once belonged to his father. And, long ago, it had belonged to his father’s father. The other thing was Della’s hair.” This allows the readers to predict an unfortunate event in the course of the story where the possessions will be lost due to unfavourable circumstances.






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