By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). His stories are characterised by their irony, their chatty narrative style, their occasional sentimentality, and by their surprise twist endings. All of these things became something of a signature feature, and ‘The Gift of the Magi’ embodies them all to some extent. But what does this Christmas story mean?
You can read ‘The Gift of the Magi’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below.
We discuss some of the key themes of ‘The Gift of the Magi’ in a separate post.
‘The Gift of the Magi’: plot summary
It is Christmas Eve. Jim and Della are a married couple living in a modest furnished flat in New York. They have little money. The story opens with Della upset because she has just one dollar and eighty-seven cents to spend on a Christmas present for her husband.
The narrator tells us the married couple each have a possession in which they take great pride. For Jim, it’s a gold watch that had been his father’s and, before that, his grandfather’s. Della’s prized possession is her beautiful hair.
Della goes to a woman who deals in hair goods. This woman agrees to buy Della’s hair for twenty dollars. With the newly acquired money, Della goes to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim’s gold watch. This costs her twenty-one dollars, leaving her just eighty-seven cents in the whole world. When she gets home, she sets about curling what’s left of her hair so it looks presentable.
When Jim gets home, he is surprised by his wife’s actions, but when she explains why she had her hair cut off, he embraces her and gives her the present he has bought her: two jewelled tortoiseshell combs she has long admired in a shop window. The combs are useless to her until her hair grows out again, but at least she can give Jim his present …
But in a last twist, Jim tells Della that he sold his gold watch to pay for the expensive combs he bought for her. So now, she has two combs but no hair to use them on, and he has a platinum fob chain for a gold watch he no longer owns.
‘The Gift of the Magi’: analysis
Many of O. Henry’s short stories – the majority of which stretch to only five or six pages – are marked by their ironic twists, and ‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a good example of this typical feature of his work. In their attempts to buy each other their dream Christmas gift, young Jim and Della end up sacrificing the very things that their presents are designed to complement: the combs for Della’s (sold) hair, and the chain for Jim’s (sold) watch. As the narrator observes in the final paragraph:
The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.
But O. Henry is not inviting us to laugh at their folly, but to celebrate their sacrifice. Indeed, what motivated them was not foolishness but wisdom, as the narrator remarks in the story’s closing words:
But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
So there are, in a sense, two surprise twists at the end of ‘The Gift of the Magi’: the trademark plot twist which characterises most of O. Henry’s short stories, and the narratorial ‘twist’ in which he overturns our initial response – which might be to laugh good-naturedly at the unhappy turn of events which have just been narrated – and makes a moral point that Jim and Della behaved out of wisdom, even though they ended up with ‘useless’ presents from each other.
This is all well and good, but it’s worth noting that the narrator doesn’t gloss why he believes that Jim and Della were ‘wisest’ of all gift-givers. Of course, ‘wise’ here is suggested by the Magi, the Zoroastrian astrologers who, in the Gospel of Matthew, visited the infant Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: hence the title of the story. But what makes Jim and Della wise? And why doesn’t O. Henry tell us? Is it because he wanted us to make up our own minds, or did he assume that the answer was fairly self-explanatory?
The latter seems more likely. For surely the ‘moral’ of ‘The Gift of the Magi’, given its Christmas setting and the fact that Jim and Della clearly love each other and treat each other well despite having no money to afford the finer things in life, is that love is more important than possessions. And when it comes to Christmas and buying gifts for our loved ones, it really is the thought that counts.
But there’s a little more to ‘The Gift of the Magi’ than this rather hackneyed old adage, which would reduce the story to a sentimental and rather twee fable about ‘giving being better than receiving’ and ‘love being more important than money’. Both of these statements are relevant to the story, but what is also relevant is the element of sacrifice the two characters make, and their reaction to learning the implications of this.
So Jim is happy to part with a gold watch that has been passed down the male line for three generations, while Della is happy to lose her hair (which would, despite her protestations, take many months to grow back fully) in order to purchase the gift the other one most desires. But with the story’s twist, they learn that their personal sacrifices – committed for their love of the other one – have been in vain.
But they are happy about this, not because of the gesture of buying the gift but the great cost that it has incurred for the other. Love, O. Henry seems to say, is about giving up that which you most treasure in order to show your beloved – whom you should love even more – the extent of your devotion. In other words, what is remarkable about ‘The Gift of the Magi’ is that its moral seems to be not just ‘giving is better than receiving’ but ‘giving and losing is all that matters’, since what they receive is of no practical use to them.