O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is the touching story of a poor, young couple whose love knows no bounds and they’re ready to sacrifice their most, and more importantly their only, valuable possessions to find the perfect Christmas gifts for each other. In their willingness to give up all they have – they prove to be the wisest of all gift-givers – as wise as the Magi. For by sacrificing their most treasured possessions they gain something even more valuable: the purity of true love which is beyond all worldly wealth. The story first appeared in The New York Sunday World in December, 1905 and subsequently featured in O. Henry’s anthology of short stories titled The Four Million in 1906. “The Gift of the Magi” is a timeless classic that offers a memorable ironic twist and draws upon rich biblical imagery to drive home the lesson that true love is borne out of sacrifice thus embodying the true Christmas spirit.
In “The Gift of the Magi” O. Henry employs irony as a literary device to unravel the bitter-sweet story of the Dillinghams. With Christmas around the corner, Della feels that she could not celebrate the joyous occasion without expressing her love for her husband through the most perfect gift she could find. However, she had only been able to save one dollar and eighty-seven cents, which was not enough for she had wanted to buy him something that was actually “worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim (Henry, 1905).” She can’t bear not giving him anything worthwhile for Christmas so she decides to sell her only valuable possession: her beautiful long hair that Henry describes as a “cascade of brown waters” that reached well below her knees. This sacrifice gets her enough money to buy the perfect gift for Jim: a chain of solid gold for his watch that had the “quietness and value” that was characteristic of her husband. However, in an ironical twist of fate, Jim had already sold his treasured watch to buy his wife a set a pretty combs she had once admired, which are rendered equally useless as “the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone” (Henry, 1905). What Della and the reader see as Jim’s disappointment in his wife’s loss of her beauty, ironically turns out to be a disappointment at the realization that the gift he had so lovingly bought for his wife would go to waste. The bittersweet irony of the situation is evident in Jim’s words when he tells his wife that they better put their Christmas presents away for “they’re too nice to use just at present”, the truth being that they simply just can’t use the presents that they had gone to such lengths to buy.
The irony is further compounded by the fact that the gifts, though apparently useless, were borne out of love and sacrifice which embodies the true Christmas spirit. Della and Jim sold off their most valuable things in order to buy worthwhile gifts for each other. The gifts though precious on their own, turned out to be useless without the valuable possessions they had done away with. O. Henry calls them “two foolish children…who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house” (Henry, 1905). It is ironical that though apparently foolish, the young couple turned out to be as wise as the Magi in their gift-giving as Henry subsequently explains “of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest.” By giving away their most valuable possessions they got something even more valuable in return: knowledge of true love for each other which is more priceless than any worldly possession.
The story “The Gift of the Magi” draws heavily upon biblical imagery and references to evoke the spirit of love and sacrifice that is characteristic of Christmas. O. Henry resorts to biblical imagery to describe the significance of the Dillingham’s most prized possessions: Della’s hair and Jim’s watch. Though the Dillingham’s were poor and could hardly make ends meet, they had two valuable assets that were worth the envy of the greatest kings and queens. Here O. Henry refers to the biblical descriptions of the might and grandeur of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Della had such long, beautiful hair that would make even Queen Sheba envious and “depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts” (Henry, 1905). Similarly, Jim’s elegant watch would outdo all of King Solomon’s treasures and possessions and would make him “pluck his beard with envy” every time Jim walked by. The legendary riches and wealth of King Solomon and Queen Sheba are reduced to nothing when compared to the Dillingham’s treasured possessions. Their value can be gauged from the stark comparison to the impoverished conditions in which the young couple live. Della wears an “old brown jacket and an old brown hat” and Jim “needed a new overcoat and was without gloves” (Henry, 1905). Despite their utter poverty, they are willing to sacrifice valuables that are to them worth more than treasures of kings and queens. For the love they have for each other is greater.
The title “The Gift of the Magi” itself is an allusion to the wise sages/kings from the East who had bestowed valuable gifts upon infant Christ and thus said to have begun the tradition of gift-giving on Christmas. Della and Jim, despite their meagre means, have so much love for each other that they are willing to sacrifice all that they have for the sake of the other. Though in the eyes of the world they may be foolish, yet in the eyes of the Lord their act of sacrifice is seeped with the wisdom of the Magi for true love is all about sacrificing one’s needs for the one you love. This is the true Christmas spirit of love and sacrifice that compels O. Henry to bestow the young lovers with the honor of being the Magi.
Henry, O. (1905). The gift of the magi. The Four Million. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. Retrieved from https://americanliterature.com/author/o-henry/short-story/the-gift-of-the-magi