By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Gift of the Magi’ is, along with ‘The Last Leaf’, O. Henry’s best-known and most widely studied short story. This 1906 story is also a classic Christmas story, as the title suggests. The story explores a number of ‘big’ themes, and these are worth exploring in more detail and depth.
Below, we discuss four of the story’s most prominent themes.
The story can be summarised as follows: on Christmas Eve, married couple Jim and Della are both living in poverty in a rented flat in New York. Della has no money to get Jim the present he most wants: a platinum watch chain. She manages to sell her beautiful hair, and uses the money to buy the chain for Jim’s Christmas present.
But in a twist, we discover that Jim has bought her hair combs for her Christmas present, selling his gold watch to raise the money for the gift. So they end up with presents that are useless to them, but they have been reminded that, poor though they may be, they have a more precious gift: the gift of love.
Significantly, O. Henry opens ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by drawing attention to how poor Jim and Della are. Della is counting her money:
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.
This captures the misery but also the shame people who are living in poverty often feel. This highlights how much Della loves Jim, that she is willing to go to almost any lengths to secure the money for his present. Later, we learn that Jim needs a new overcoat and a pair of gloves, having gone out into the cold without any, and this further demonstrates how poor the Youngs are.
Love and Generosity.
Perhaps more than anything, O. Henry’s story can be read as a story on the theme of love. Christmas is often a time for love and goodwill, and the two central characters in ‘The Gift of the Magi’ are determined to demonstrate their love for each other through buying a special gift.
What they don’t realise, of course, is that the material gifts they are purchasing as declarations of that love will be rendered useless to the other person: Della cannot use the hair combs because she has sold her hair to buy the watch chain for Jim, but Jim has sold his watch so has no need of the chain.
But whereas these physical gifts begin as symbols of their love for each other, or tokens of their devotion to one another, the final ‘moral’ of O. Henry’s story is that love is itself the greatest gift they possess. And sure enough, it is by buying the thoughtful gifts which they know the other one most desires that they are able to prove their love.
In other words, the fact that the material objects turn out to be useless does not matter, for they were merely a means to an end, the end being to show how much the happiness of their spouse means to them. Love, we might say, is more important than possessions.
O. Henry does not invite us to laugh at the folly of Jim and Della, but to celebrate their mutual sacrifice. Indeed, although the narrator describes them as ‘children’, what motivated them was not foolishness or naivety but wisdom, as he 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.
The ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’ were the Zoroastrian astrologers who, in the Gospel of Matthew, visited the infant Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But it should be noted that O. Henry’s third-person narrator of the story doesn’t explain why Jim and Della, and other people like them, are ‘wisest’.
And they are wise because, despite the fact that their well-meaning gift-buying goes awry, they are happy in spite of this – and happy with each other. They have seen the sacrifice the other has made in order to get them the special gift they wanted. Love, O. Henry seems to say, is about giving up physical possessions in one’s mission to demonstrate one’s love for someone.
And with this thought in mind, we might conclude by considering one last theme that’s relevant to O. Henry’s story: gender. Note the sacrifices which Jim and Della make, which subtly hint at the gender roles of the time when the story was published (the first decade of the twentieth century).
When describing Della’s long hair, O. Henry uses the word ‘gifts’ to play on the story’s title:
Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts.
Della’s hair, then, is so beautiful that even the biblical Queen of Sheba would feel that her own jewels and gifts were lessened in value next to Della’s natural ‘gift’: her hair. This is, of course, ironic, since Della will sell her hair in order to buy another gift: it turns out her hair has a monetary value after all, and it is twenty dollars.
But the fact that she is willing to part with a part of her which, in many respects, symbolises her feminine beauty reveals how far she is prepared to go to make Jim happy.
Jim, too, parts with a gift which represents his masculinity: fob watches were part of a gentleman’s essential accoutrements, and Jim’s gold watch has been passed down the male line of the family for several generations. He is prepared to part with it in order to buy Della the gift he knows she desires.
Of course, the two gifts which each buys the other reinforce their respective gender roles: the watch chain would literally attach Jim’s gold watch to his person, making it a kind of extension of himself, while Della’s hair would be made more beautiful and admirable when combed using the tortoiseshell combs Jim buys for her.