Love, generosity, and the various definitions of wealth and poverty are central themes in “The Gift of the Magi,” in which a poor, loving young husband and wife sell the only valuable things they own to give each other special Christmas gifts. Delia Young sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a platinum watch chain, and Jim sells his heirloom watch to buy Delia some tortoiseshell hair combs. These gifts are useless, in one sense; Delia cannot wear her combs without her hair, and Jim, without his watch, cannot use his watch chain.
But the narrator of the story points out that the Youngs possess a gift greater than any object: the gift of love. He compares them to the magi (the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem), saying:”let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest…. They are the magi.”
Growing out of the Youngs’ love is their deep generosity. Delia and Jim are very poor, and yet Delia decides to sell her only treasure: her hair. O. Henry shows that this is not an easy sacrifice for Delia to make. He contrasts Delia’s gorgeous hair with the Youngs’ impoverished apartment. The Queen of Sheba herself would have been jealous of this treasure, he asserts, and he gives his readers a vivid image of it: “Delia’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her.” The color drains from Delia’s face when she makes her decision, and she urges Mme. Sofronie to hurry—perhaps so she will not change her mind.
O. Henry does not show the decision-making process when Jim sells his watch, but he does describe how important the watch is to him. Handed down from his grandfather to his father to Jim, the watch is lauded as a treasure that even wealthy King Solomon would covet. Jim, too, sells his only valuable possession, so that he may buy his wife a special Christmas gift. Delia has never asked for the combs that Jim buys her, but clearly he has seen her face when she has passed the combs in the shop window and has decided that his wife, and his love for her, are more important than his precious keepsake.
Wealth and Poverty
The themes of love and generosity work hand in hand with the story’s examination of what it means to be rich or poor. O. Henry provides many details to illustrate Jim and Delia’s poverty. The furniture in their apartment is shabby; the apartment’s doorbell does not work, and it is not possible even to put a letter in their mail slot. They do not own a proper mirror. When Delia goes out, she puts on “her old brown jacket” and “her old brown hat,” and Jim needs gloves and a new overcoat. Their rent is $8 per week, and Jim makes only $20 per week.
In contrast, the narrator of the story makes biblical allusions concerning the great value of Delia’s hair and Jim’s watch; even King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba would be jealous of such fine things. And yet Jim and Delia each sacrifice their only good material possessions out of love for the other.
O. Henry makes the point that while Jim and Delia are terribly poor by material standards, they are wealthy beyond compare in their love for each other. “The Gift of the Magi” is often held up as a story about true love and about the true spirit of Christmas and of giving.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, O. Henry, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.