‘The Gift of the Magi’: Theme, Lesson & Summary, Explained

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Written by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi” short story is a classic piece of American literature. It centers on a couple who don’t have a lot of money and, as a result, find it difficult to buy each other Christmas gifts. However, like much of Henry’s writing, this tale has a much deeper meaning than goes beyond giving meaningful presents to your loved ones.

The ever-popular short story has been adapted into multiple TV specials and movies, and, every year, it’s a story folks read again and again during the holiday season due to its themes of love and sacrifice. So, what actually unfolds in “The Gift of the Magi” story? We’re diving into the plot, themes, and more of this enduring tale.

‘The Gift of the Magi’: Theme

“The Gift of the Magi ” was originally published in 1905 in The New York Sunday World, and, later, it was republished in the O. Henry anthology The Four Million. Typically, Henry’s stories are marked by humor, twist endings, sentimentality, and life lessons; this story reflects all of those features.

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So, what happens in “The Gift of the Magi,” exactly? Here’s our quick summary:

The narrator tells the tale of a young husband and wife, Jim Dillingham Young and Della Dillingham Young, who are trying to buy each other surprise Christmas gifts. And even though they don’t have much money, their relationship is filled with love. The day before Christmas, the both Jim and Della give up something they love very much in order to get the other a gift.

That is, Della cuts and sells her hair at a local shop so that she can buy Jim a beautiful platinum watch chain. Meanwhile, Jim buys Della an exquisite set of combs she’d been wanting. Saddened by the fact that she no longer has hair to brush with them, Della presents her gift to Jim, who, upon seeing the watch chain, reveals that he sold his watch to buy the combs. The two put their gifts away and enjoy dinner together. In the end, the narrator notes that, “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. … They are the magi.”

Although it’s a short story, “The Gift of the Magi” and its powerful themes still that resonate with millions to this day.

‘The Gift of the Magi’: Setting

Although modern adaptations of this story provide a more specific setting, the original story does not mention a particular place. However, with a reference to Coney Island — Della believes that Jim will compare her to a ”Coney Island chorus girl” after she cuts her hair — readers can assume the story is set in New York City. In fact, Henry himself was from there, leading many to assume Jim and Della were too.

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Moreover, this story was published during the early 1900s, so many assume the author set the story in his own time period. And the narrator makes it clear that their flat was cheap at $8 a week, with Jim’s income being cut from $30 a week to a mere $20 a week, further cementing the time period during which the story is set.

‘The Gift of the Magi’: Characters

There are three principal characters in “The Gift of the Magi.” Most notably, Della is the loving and devoted protagonist of the story. There’s also her husband, Jim, who works long hours for little money.

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The story also briefly mentions Madame Sofronie, who owns the hair shop where Della gets her cut. Interested in money, she is very direct with Della and gives her a non-negotiable offer of $20 for her hair. It doesn’t really matter to Madame Sofronie that Della is giving up her most prized possession.

‘The Gift of the Magi’: Conflict

The main conflict in “The Gift of the Magi” centers around the Dillingham Young’s financial woes. Della doesn’t have enough money to buy the gift she wants for Jim — and vice versa. Their current financial situation is something she can’t quite shake from her mind, and, even though Della saves for months, it’s not something she can overcome.

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Eventually, Della then has to make a very personal decision to resolve this conflict. If she cuts her hair, she can afford the gift she believes Jim deserves. But, of course, Della’s long hair is her pride and joy. This makes her sacrifice all the more meaningful. In fact, Della’s gift becomes more about sacrifice and less about the watch chain she buys for her husband.

‘The Gift of the Magi’: Symbolism

As this is a Christmas story, “the Magi” is a reference to the bible’s Three Wise Men. These three followed the star to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, so that they could give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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These gifts, much like Della’s and Jim’s, held greater value rather than just material wealth. That is, they were of spiritual significance, representing Jesus’s birth and, as many Christians believe, his sacrificial death and later resurrection: as a metal, Gold is a symbol of earthly kingship; frankincense, an incense, is a symbol of godliness; and, finally, myrrh, an embalming oil, is a symbol of death.

The symbols in the short story include Della’s hair and Jim’s watch, both of which become symbols of their love and sacrifice — as well as the little material (or financial) success they do have despite their overall circumstances. Although they may at first come across as foolish for sacrificing their most prized possessions for worldly gifts, Jim and Della turn out to symbolize wisdom, much like “the Magi” referenced in the story’s title.

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