The Gift of the Magi Essay

The Gift of the Magi is a short story that was written by William Sydney Porter, better known by his pseudonym O. Henry in 1906. O. Henry was a prolific author penning many short stories beginning in 1899 until his death in 1910. O. Henry is famous for his trademark surprise endings which he called “snapper” endings (Clugston, 2010) and for his rich use of symbolism and irony. The story The Gift of the Magi follows the story of a young couple who are madly in love but suffering from the inability to provide the “perfect” gift for each other due to a lack of finances.

O. Henry’s usage of plot, setting, symbolism and irony will be discussed in the following theme and narrative elements in this short story essay. The Gift of the Magi has three different themes. The themes portrayed in this work are poverty, love, and generosity. The main characters in The Gift of the Magi are named Jim and Della; they are a young happy couple who have found themselves living in poverty. At the beginning of the story we are introduced to Della, who is meticulously counting all the money that she has been able to save for her husband Jims Christmas gift.

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Della is crying with despair over the fact that the amount of money that she has saved will not by her anything that she deems worthy of giving her beloved Jim. It appears that Jim and Della once had a greater salary, one that they were proud of, and one that deemed Jim worthy of having the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young. ” It also appears that since the drop in Jim’s income their hopes of giving a present worthy of their beloved has been dashed too. O. Henry shows us the Young’s poverty by describing their “shabby little couch”, a neglected letter box and “and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring” (Henry, 2007).

By O. Henry’s descriptions we are able to feel empathy for Jim and Della and their predicament. Another example of theme that O. Henry used in “The Gift of the Magi” is love. Many examples where given throughout the story of just how smitten the Young’s where with each other. Even though Jim no longer felt worthy of being called his full name his wife Della would shower her “Jim” with hugs (Clugston, 2010). Della has also spent hours deliberating over finding a gift “being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim” (Henry, 2007).

Jim unbeknownst to us, as the story is told as third person limited omniscient, struggles with the same dilemma. The Young’s have exactly two things that they consider to be their prized possessions, an antique watch from Jims family and Della’s luxuriously long hair. The majority of our story centers on Della, with Jim making his appearance closer to the end. The last example of theme is generosity. O. Henry wove the elements of both sensitivity and humility into his characters to convey his message of loves ultimate of generosity.

Both Jim and Della gave up the possessions that they loved the most (other than their spouse) to ensure a gift that they felt to be adequate for their spouse. O. Henry did not use any concept or situation other than common ones that affect many of us on a regular basis to express his point. Out of love we give, out of love we receive. O. Henry has chosen to write in a third person limited omniscient style to allow us to experience their lives comically and intimately but not fully, thus adding an element of surprise and irony to the tale.

Writing in this style has allowed us to follow Della through the eyes of a narrator or storyteller. The “Storyteller” seems to be an omniscient presence because he seems to know everything, but focuses on Della and her situation. More than once the “Storyteller” steps back and offers insight into the story that goes above and beyond what Della and Jim see. For example, when Della is crying on the couch, the narrator starts describing the apartment. The most noticeable demonstration of this action is at the end when the narrator/storyteller zooms out and starts talking about the Magi.

We are never let in to see what is happening with Jim throughout the story until the very end and then only to discover his reaction to Della’s haircut. This writing style captured me in the way that we got to see the “bigger picture” of what was really happening and I also was able to connect the events of the story with the tale of the Magi from the Bible. The next element of “The Gift of the Magi” that will be discussed is symbolism. O. Henry did not use a lot of symbolism in this story, the places that he did use it made them stand out all the more though. Three times O.

Henry makes reference to events or characters in either the Old or New Testaments of the Christian Bible. First O. Henry describes Della’s hair as being so beautiful that even the Queen of Sheba would be envious of it. He then went on to say that Jim’s watch would have been the envy of King Solomon. Both the Queen of Sheba is known for her wealth and beauty, King Solomon is known for his extreme wealth, and each are in the Torah/Old Testament. Though it does not appear until the end, the reference that O. Henry makes to the Biblical story of the Magi is the most poignant metaphor of them all.

In the New Testament the Magi or wise men deliver gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the newborn baby Jesus. The wise men are symbolic of sacrificial gifts. The wise men travelled great distances, risked their lives, and bore very expensive gifts to offer Jesus. The comparison of these wealthy and powerful Biblical figures to Jim and Della shows us that the gifts that they gave and received where treasures worthy of a King. SETTING AND IRONY The setting of “The Gift of the Magi” is a dreary flat located in an undisclosed city. Through imagery O.

Henry describes the environment around the Young’s as drab and old. For example; the broken mailbox and door bell, the “gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard”, Della’s “old brown jacket” and “old brown hat”, as well as Jim’s worn coat and lack of gloves (Clugston, 2010). O. Henry weaves these portrayals of dreariness and poverty to show a contrast of the brightness of the love between the Young’s. The outer world and materialism that it holds does not hold a candle to the warm, rich love of Jim and Della. The plot of “The Gift of the Magi” is expressed in the depiction of a young poor married couple.

We follow Della as she contemplates the fact that she does not have enough money to buy her husband a wonderful Christmas gift. Della comes up with a brilliant idea, she will sell her most prized possession-her hair, so that she can buy her beloved husband Jim a wonderful gift, a chain for his antique watch. Della’s husband Jim in turn in a similar predicament decides to sell his most valuable possession, his watch, to buy hair combs for Della. The plot is filled with conflict (how can I get them that gift), complications (you did what? ), climax (those combs are swell, suspense (now what about that chain? , and conclusion (we are happy no matter what, I only need you). All of these elements of the plot work together to prove that true love conquers all.

All of the literary elements described contribute to the narrative elements of “The Gift of the Magi”. O. Henry’s use of third person limited omnipresent allowed us to see further into the story than we would have been allowed to if it was written in first person, or second person narrative. O. Henry wove a tale of unconditional and generous love that is able to conquer poverty, and otherwise earthy lacking of material attributes. Writing under the famous pseudonym, O. Henry, William Sydney Porter breathed life into characters, creating moments that touched readers with their sensitivity and humanity. He portrayed lovelorn people with the same authentic touch, using sympathy, irony, and the wit for which he is justly famous” (Tai-An Lin, 2010). Jim and Della’s love and self-sacrifice reaches even Biblical accounts of grandeur, tying in just how much they loved and cared for each other, while leaving us with a far weightier moral bearing.


Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into Literature. San Diego, California: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. Retrieved from https://content. ashford. edu/books Henry, O. (2007). THE GIFT OF THE MAGI. Saturday Evening Post, 279(6), 46-105. Tai-An Lin. (2010). A Study of Metacognition on O. henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”. Asian Social Science, 6(4), 49-54. Retrieved from http://search. proquest. com/docview/821542857? accountid=32521 http://www. kirjasto. sci. fi/ohenry. htm