Literary Analysis of The Gift of the Magi


The popular short story ‘The Gift of the Magi’ was written by American writer William Sydney Porter who later changed his name to O’ Henry after he came out from Prison where he had been incarcerated for embezzlement in 1898 in Columbus, Ohio. The story was first published in December 10th, 1905 in The New York Sunday World and then on April 10, 1906 it appeared in O’ Henry’s second short story collection.

Plot Summary

The story is that of a young couple Jim and Della Young. In the story we are confronted by a depiction of a couple living in poverty. The only possession of note that the couple have which can qualify for treasure are a gold pocket watch Jim got from his grandfather through his dad, and Della’s long beautiful hair that cascades down to her knees.

The story opens on Christmas Eve, and we find Della fretting in despair as the time ticks away for her to buy her husband Jim a worthy Christmas present. After some contemplative moment standing over a pathetic piece of reflective glass that she uses as a mirror, Della goes out to cut her beautiful hair which she sold for $20.00 and used the money a acquire a gift for Jim; a platinum chain that she had seen in a shop valued at $21.00. Della is of the opinion that the chain is perfect for Jim’s prized pocket watch.

When Jim returns home from work, we find him staring at Della, trying to understand what happened to her lustrous hair. Della then presents her Christmas gift to Jim and tells him that she sold her hair to buy him the present. Jim on his part gives his wife an ornamented hair comb that she had longed for. The irony of the situation now dawns on the characters as well as the reader: the gifts are now useless since they cannot be used because what they could be used with had been sold to acquire them.

Theme and Moral

The story uses the literary technique of irony to resolve a well-crafted narrative. The technique of irony simply put is when expectation is different from outcome. In this story, the couple sell their most treasured possessions to acquire gifts for each other that at the end they couldn’t use because they could only practically use it with the possessions they had sacrificed to buy the gifts.
Beyond irony, the theme of sacrifice and love is fully deployed in this literary works. On a practical sense, Della and Jim acted in the typical sentimental foolishness associated with love by not only wasting money to buy the other a present they weren’t going to use, they also had to lose their most prized possessions in the process. However, on a deeper fundamental level this foolish act becomes a metaphor of love and its priceless value. In losing their most prized worldly possessions, they discover an infinitely subtle but more cherished possession which is the love they have for each other and the willingness to lose their prized materialistic possessions for the abstract happiness of the other.

The story is set during the Christmas period. Precisely on the eve of Christmas, and this makes this story a lovely holiday time tale. Holidays are mostly moments of sentiments and filial appreciation that most time are celebrated with emphasis on material things. This in itself is a fitting metaphor of the foolishness of humans to accord undue importance on mundane material things.

In this story, O’ Henry uses his storytelling ability to depict a metaphor of our tendency to usually think about the present or living in the moment and placing immense but undue value on material possessions that in the long run only serves to give us fleeting hedonistic pleasure. The story suggests that we tend to usually forget the deeper meanings of life. Fortunately for the Dillingham Young’, in pursuit of this transient gratification, they stumble upon the deeper meaning and appreciation of love which is a more valuable gift.

Style and Technique

O’ Henry’s deploys a mixture of techniques ranging from of irony, humour, metaphor, and suspense in crafting this fictional story that is steeped in practical and real every day human situations that are timeless. The work is also rich in allusions and imagery. The work in itself is an allusion to the story material gifts baby Jesus got from the three wise men. By showing the worthlessness of material gifts, O’ Henry alludes in this story that the presents Jim and Della got for each other was as useless as the material gifts given to baby Jesus by the Magi.
The writer also deploys the use of metaphoric allegory elaborately in the story. This story is one that is laced with hidden moral meanings. It shows that love can thrive even in poverty and that material gift though a show of love is not greater than the love itself.

By presenting us with a scenario that shows that gifts aren’t as useful as we assume them to be, O’ Henry uses his story as a metaphoric depiction of the fleeting value of material possessions.

In this classic piece, O’ Henry used very few imageries in a bid to make the biblical allusions to stand out more prominently. But one example of imagery can be found in the opening paragraph where the writer used ‘burning cheek’ which bring to mind a picture of fire or hot coal to describe Della’s embarrassment to ask for lower prices for items so as to buy her husband a worthy Christmas gift.


O’ Henry’s popular masterpiece resonant agelessly through time; carrying a message of love’s selfless sacrifice that is done without any ulterior motive.

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