The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry: Summary, Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:15 Plot Summary
  • 2:40 Analysis: Theme and Moral
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

This lesson covers O. Henry's famous short story, ''The Gift of the Magi.'' We'll cover the story's plot, analyze some of its major themes, and finish with a brief quiz.

Plot Summary

The Gift of the Magi is a well-known short story by American short story writer O. Henry, the pen name of William Sydney Porter. The story first appeared in The New York Sunday World on December 10, 1905 and was later published in O. Henry's collection The Four Million on April 10, 1906.

The story tells of a young married couple, James, known as Jim, and Della Dillingham. The couple has very little money and lives in a modest apartment. Between them, they have only two possessions that they consider their treasures: Jim's gold pocket watch that belonged to his father and his grandfather, and Della's lustrous, long hair that falls almost to her knees.

It's Christmas Eve, and Della finds herself running out of time to buy Jim a Christmas present. After paying all of the bills, all Della has left is $1.87 to put toward Jim's Christmas present. Desperate to find him the perfect gift, out she goes into the cold December day, looking in shop windows for something she can afford.

She wants to buy Jim a chain for his pocket watch, but they're all out of her price range. Rushing home, Della pulls down her beautiful hair and stands in front of the mirror, admiring it and thinking. After a sudden inspiration, she rushes out again and has her hair cut to sell. Della receives $20.00 for selling her hair, just enough to buy the platinum chain she saw in a shop window for $21.00.

When Jim comes home from work, he stares at Della, trying to figure out what's different about her. She admits that she sold her hair to buy his present. Before she can give it to him, however, Jim casually pulls a package out of his overcoat pocket and hands it to her. Inside, Della finds a pair of costly decorative hair combs that she'd long admired, but are now completely useless since she's cut off her hair. Hiding her tears, she jumps up and holds out her gift for Jim: the watch chain. Jim shrugs, flops down onto the old sofa, puts his hands behind his head and tells Della flatly that he sold his watch to buy her combs.

The story ends with a comparison of Jim and Della's gifts to the gifts that the Magi, or three wise men, gave to Baby Jesus in the manger in the biblical story of Christmas. The narrator concludes that Jim and Della are far wiser than the Magi because their gifts are gifts of love, and those who give out of love and self-sacrifice are truly wise because they know the value of self-giving love.

Theme and Moral

The Gift of the Magi is a classic example of irony in literature. Irony is a literary technique in which an expectation of what is supposed to occur differs greatly from the actual outcome. In this case, Jim and Della sacrifice their most treasured possessions so that the other can fully enjoy his or her gift. Jim sells his watch to buy Della's combs, expecting her to be able to use them. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch. Neither expects the other to have made that sacrifice.

The irony here works both on a practical and on a deeper, more sentimental level. Both Della and Jim buy each other a gift that ultimately seems financially foolish. Being poor, they can't afford to waste money on things they can't use. However, what they get is something they don't expect: a more intangible gift that reminds them how much they love each other and are willing to sacrifice to make each other happy.

The story's setting at Christmas time makes it a popular story for the holiday season. Its major theme is the difference between wisdom and foolishness, or having or not having, a sense of judgment and understanding.

Both Jim and Della behave impulsively, sacrificing their greatest treasures without thinking about the consequences and focusing instead on making one another happy. From an entirely practical perspective, this doesn't make much sense because they can't enjoy the gifts that are supposed to make them happy.

Jim and Della are thinking about the present moment and the material possessions that give us pleasure. What they foolishly don't realize, however, is that they've given each other a greater gift: their sacrificial love. The lesson they ultimately learn is that their love for each other is worth more than all of the material possessions money can buy. O. Henry makes a somewhat humorous though a meaningful comparison between the Magi in the Bible and Jim and Della at the end of the story:

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