2. The Major Themes Love, Sacrifice and Wisdom
3. The ‘O. Henry twist’
5.1. Biography of O. Henry
5.2. Short Summary of “The Gift of the Magi”
6.1. Primary Literature
6.2. Secondary Literature
William Sydney Porter changed his name often. By using only “William Sydney Porter“ or his most common penname “O. Henry” the paper is hopefully easier to understand. Different sources spell his name differently. In this paper I will continue to use the above mentioned spelling, as done in most sources.
In this paper I will have a closer look at the short story “The Gift of the Magi“ by O. Henry. I will start by analyzing the major themes love, sacrifice and wisdom. Furthermore, I will also have a look at the ending of the story, which is an example of the so-called ‘O. Henry twist’. By analyzing these different aspects of the short story I will conclude with the meaning for the reader today and the question whether this short story is worth reading.
2. The Major Themes Love, Sacrifice and Wisdom
O. Henry addresses various themes in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”, which was first published in 1906 in ”The Four Million”. These themes are illustrated by the actions and statements of the two main characters Della and James Dillingham Young and are also emphasized by the narrator.
While the subject of the story is the relationship of the two characters, the most obvious theme is that love is more important than any material item. The Youngs illustrate this theme through their actions. Despite their poverty Della always welcomes James with great affection: “But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called ‘Jim’ and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young …” (Henry 1992: 1). This shows that material possessions become unimportant when compared to unselfish love. True love like this one can even happen to people who live under very poor conditions.
Della plans in much detail the present, which she would like to give to “… Jim. Her Jim.” (Henry 1992: 2). The repetition of his name and the use of a personal pronoun emphasize her love to Jim. The long process of planning, which William Sydney Porter only described shortly, also proves their love.
In the name of love Della even sacrifices her most valuable possession: her hair. Jim reacts equally and sells his watch. Both items stand in contrast to the apartment Della and Jim live in, which underlines the value of the two possessions. This is also achieved by the allusion to royal treasures and the biblical motif:
“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. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.” (Henry 1992: 2)
This high value makes it even harder for Della to take the step to sacrifice it in order to purchase the present for Jim. This is shown by the way she acts, when she waits at Mne. Sofronie’s: “‘Give it to me quick,’ said Della.” (Henry 1992: 2). She is afraid, that she might change her mind. But, because of her true love to Jim, she sacrifices her most valuable possession and sells her hair.
Della not only expresses her love through her actions but also puts it into words after Jim sees her the first time with short hair: “‘Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,’ she went on with sudden serious sweetness, ‘but nobody could ever count my love for you.’” (Henry 1992: 4). Her hair is not important for her and she was happy to sacrifice it for her husband. Jim returns this statement of her feelings in his own gentle way, which is almost a declaration of love to Della: “ ‘Don’t make any mistake, Dell,’ he said, ‘about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less.’” (Henry 1992: 4). This does not only underline the love he feels for Della but also the fact that he is aware that the gifts of love and sacrifice have a higher value than any material possession. He does not regret anything and has a positive outlook on their living situation although speaking in materialistic ways they might not be rich: “‘Dell,’ said he, ‘let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.’” (Henry 1992: 5). Nevertheless he understands that they are rich because of the love they share. Although they did not really need the items they purchased, they bought it because of the true and unselfish love.
This act of giving is also important in the last paragraph of the short story, which is stated in form of an extended metaphor:
“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 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. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” (Henry 1992: 5)
The narrator relates the magi to the couple. Although the Youngs only seem to be ”two foolish children” (Henry 1992: 5) who were unwise, because they sold their most valuable possessions, the narrator explains in this “… little parable with a significant meaning” (Voss 1973: 124) that they are wise because of their true love, their sacrifice and their unselfish behavior. Therefore one can say that:
“The theme of the story is love, and how the value of giving is measured not by how lavish a gift is in a monetary sense, but by the love that is behind it. … Jim’s and Della’s gifts to each other were priceless because each, out of love, gave up their most prized possessions to make the other happy.” (eNotes.com Inc. 2008)
This idea is also summarized by the title of the short story, which shows that love is really ‘the gift of the magi’.
 cp. “Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.” (Henry 1992: 2)
 cp. “Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair.” (Henry 1992: 2)
 cp. „A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.” (Henry 1992: 1)
 cp. “Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.” (Henry 1992: 2)
 cp. “When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.” (Henry 1992: 3)
“Magi (the Magi) noun [pl.] (in the bible) the three wise men from the East who are said to have brought presents to the baby Jesus” (Oxford University Press 2000: 772)
 cp. “How wonderful to love so deeply; how glorious to be loved so much.” (Musick 1998-2007)
The two main characters in "Gift of the Magi" are a husband and wife who give up their most precious possessions to be able to afford gifts for each other on Christmas Eve. The story seems to be all about sacrifice. We watch Della go through the process of deciding to make the sacrifice and going through with it, only to discover that her husband has made the same sacrifice. The story's narrator assures us that in their willingness to give up all they have, they have proven themselves the wisest of all gift-givers. It might remain unclear, though, exactly what their sacrifice has accomplished, or how it has affected them.
Questions About Sacrifice
- Does Della perceive the loss of her hair as a sacrifice? Is she affected by it? How can you tell?
- Does it seem to you as if either Della or Jim makes a greater sacrifice, or are their sacrifices equivalent? Why?
- Do Della and Jim make a wise decision in sacrificing their most precious possessions? Do you agree with the narrator's conclusion?
Chew on This
Della does not perceive the loss of her hair as a sacrifice.