“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry is a tale rich with the simplicity of times past, while carrying forward one that transcends time an history…the unconditional love and sacrifice of man (Jim) and wife (Della). Published in 1906 in “The Four Million”, it was his first collection of short stories, it included a surprise ending that come to be considered typical of Henry’s other writings. “The story is also thought to exemplify the author’s interest in the elements of surprise and trick endings, as the impact of the mutual sacrifice is not revealed until the conclusion of the tale. ”
1 Della is the typical mid-20th century housewife, devoted to her husband and their life together. Jim is blue-collar worker that has fallen on hard times, taking a pay cut, but struggles on gracefully, looking forward. Deeply saddened that she is unable to purchase a Christmas gift for Jim that she feels is worthy of his sacrifices, loyalty, love and unselfishness, Della sells her beautiful, long hair in exchange for twenty dollars, feeling the need to show her love for her beloved in a material way.
The tale culminates in a quintessential illustration of cosmic (and/or situational) irony, as is trademark of O. Henry’s stories: both Della and Jim sacrifices something with great significance in order to give something of themselves to each other. Upon giving Jim her special gift, Della explains how she sold her lovely locks that Jim so loved in order to show her love by way of a small token of her affection…only to have Jim, ironically, reveal his surprise: a stunning set of hair combs, “pure tortoise shell, with jeweled rims” 2, that Della had adored and longed for. Jim had sacrificed his most-prized possession – a precious gold pocket watch passed down to him by his grandfather – in order to purchase this extravagant gift, which she could not use.
Instead of being disappointed, Della and Jim are overwhelmed and touched by their mutual sacrifices and the situational irony. They focus on the unselfish gifts and unconditional love they share, and not on what they have lost. They agree to put their presents away, and focus on an intimate dinner and enjoy each other’s company. At this point in the story, the narrator declares Della and Jim among the wisest of all by the giving of such great gifts of the heart, for “They are the Magi. ” 3 In this allegorical statement, Henry attempts to answer the question, “What is wealth? We ask ourselves, “Is it an object desired or financial success…or is it truly in things unseen, untouched by human hands, and dwells solely within the heart of man? ” Della and Jim sacrificed their most valued possessions in order to present special gifts to each other as a token on their unconditional love, much in the way the Three Wise Kings, or “Magi”, brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant savior upon his birth in Bethlehem so many years ago. In the same way, the physical gifts represent the existing gifts of the heart.
It is in the gift of giving that we see the first of two themes in this story: the gift of giving truly is the greatest and most precious gift of all. This is further solidified by the moral: “It’s the thought that counts”. The second theme is surrounds the unconditional love that exists between the couple and in the sacrifices each made for each other. In giving up their respective most prized possessions, they continued to show love and bring joy to the other with a thankful heart. As mere mortals, we can only hope and strive for nothing less…love, joy, loyalty, grace and the gift of a happy life. Shouldn’t we all be like Della and Jim?