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Literary Analysis of O. Henry 'The Gift of the Magi

The Gift of the Magi (Dec.10,1905) I heard is one of the most popular short stories by O. Henry. In O. Henry’s second collection of short stories, The Gift of the Magi which displays all the major traits O. Henry has given him credit for his great talent. It has been retold in many different forms since then, mostly at Christmas time. The story is about a young poor couple, Jim and Della Dillingham Young, who each sells their most prized possession in order to buy a Christmas gift for their partner, but in doing so, they end up making each other’s gift worthless.

The Magi refers to the Wise Men or Kings in the Gospel of Matthew and Christianity. They visit Jesus after his birth and bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to him. Also, they are important figures of celebrations of Christmas. Christmas gifts are precious, so people want to receive the most valuable gifts at the end of the year, such as the gift of Magi.

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Short for cash and want to give her beloved husband the best gift for Christmas to express her deep passion for him, we are immediately introduced to the initial situation at hand. With only a dollar and some change to spend on Jim, Della is forced into a situation where she must find a way to get the right amount of funds to spend on Jim’s gift, but how? This is what leads us to the major conflict of the short story.

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Though in a more traditional style, a story will introduce you to a situation and will then carry out events that eventually lead to a major conflict. Instead, in O. Henry’s style of telling his story, the narrator puts the reader during an issue that must be resolved. It is said that the couple has only two things that are considered of any high value; Jim’s gold watch and Della’s luscious locks of hair. Della decides, after long tearful contemplation, that she must sell her hair and risk her beauty in exchange for the money to buy Jim’s gift. Though this decision has led to the solution of the original situation at hand of how Della will find the money for her gift, it has ultimately led to the most considerable conflict of the story that is the question of whether or not Jim will appreciate her gift, or be upset at the cost of the gift.

One of the most important things provided by Henry in the story reflects on the sacrifice that the couple had to make in order to make each one happy. Specifically, it emphasizes the willingness of everyone to let go of their most prized possessions to make someone happy. For Della, it would be her long beautiful hair, and Jim, his prized watch that has been passed down by his father (Henry 1). It shows how much the couple values one another that they are willing to give up the things that are important to them. Though in the end, both were not able to take advantage of the gift they bought, the author is able to create a lasting impression on the readers concerning what each one would do to please the other. His stories open on Christmas Eve, and we find Della fretting in despair as the time ticks away for her to buy her husband Jim a worthy Christmas present. After some contemplative moment standing over a piece of reflective glass that she uses as a mirror, Della goes out to cut her beautiful hair which she sold for $20.00 and used the money for Jim’s gift; a platinum chain that she had seen in a shop valued at $21.00. Della thinks that the chain is perfect for Jim’s prized pocket watch. The narrator shows that value is subjective when he compares Della’s hair and Jim’s watch to the treasures of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba—these items are clearly not equally valuable, but to Della and Jim, their prized possessions meaning just as much as the mythical jewels the narrator talks about. Della also demonstrates that her main concern with their poverty revolves around how it limits her ability to show her love for Jim. Also, note that Della’s hair here represents her own external beauty and youth.

When Jim returns home from work, we find him staring at Della, trying to understand what happened to her lustrous hair. Della then presents her Christmas gift to Jim and tells him that she sold her hair to buy him the present. Jim on his part gives his wife an ornamented hair comb that she had longed for. The irony of the situation now dawns on the characters as well as the reader: the gifts are now useless since they cannot be used because what they could be used with had been sold to buy them.

Henry also utilizes symbolism in the story that allows readers to gain important insights and lessons. One of the most evident is the ‘gift’ of both couples to each other. Arguably, this remains to be an important aspect in shaping the development of character and values in the story. Advances the idea that the true significance of any gift does not necessarily reflect the price or type of object that is given. Rather, it comes from the effort and intention of any giver to provide an effort in choosing the appropriate gift and without asking for anything in return (Fitzpatrick 1). From the viewpoint of Henry, this is what ‘gift-giving’ really means. Even if Jim and Della are poor, they still had the means to offer something wonderful to one another that money isn’t capable of buying.

The conclusion to this story is the narrator’s final paragraphs where he relates the couple to the Magi and praises Jim and Della of being the wisest givers of all, contrary to popular belief. The comparison O. Henry makes between the story of Jim and Della and that of the Magi is rather relevant as the Magi were the ones who are credited with being the origins of the “giving nature” of the Christmas season. In this story, we see a man and a woman so blinded by love that they are willing to make ultimate sacrifices for the happiness of the other. Similar to the Magi, Della and Tim put each other before themselves, and through their generosity and considerable lengths they both went to achieve that generosity is something more admirable than any materialistic gift they could ever offer each other, thus making the uselessness of their gifts irrelevant. This story is a story that can touch any person that has had to go through a heavy sacrifice or gave up something they so covet in order to enlighten someone else, especially during the holiday seasons. The story uses the literary technique of irony to resolve a well-crafted narrative.

The technique of irony simply put is when the expectation is different from the outcome. In this story, the couple sells their most treasured possessions to buy gifts for each other that in the end they couldn’t use because they could only practically use it with the possessions, they had sacrificed to buy the gifts. The irony of the turnout of events where both partners gave up something to buy something that is rendered inferior by the end of the story. This adds to the meaning of the story by adding a resemblance between Della and Jim and deepening their love for one another. Because they were so poor, these two things were the only things they could offer to get enough money to buy their gifts. It makes one realize that one does not always have to get the best gift for someone, but you must make them understand your love for them through sentimental value, and then you have given and received the best gift of all.


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Essay about Irony

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Literary Analysis of O. Henry 'The Gift of the Magi. (2020, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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