“The Gift of the Magi” American short story

Table of Content

William Sydney Porter, who is also known by the pen name O. Henry, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. He gained worldwide fame for his short stories, which are renowned for their wit, clever wordplay, and unexpected conclusions. Before discovering his talent for writing short stories, O. Henry held various occupations and professions. In 1879, he commenced working at his uncle’s drugstore and obtained a pharmacist license at a young age of 19. It was during this period at the pharmacy that he initially showcased his creativity by sketching the store’s patrons and received recognition for his artistic abilities.

In March of 1882, O. Henry relocated to Texas with hopes of finding relief from an incessant cough.

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While residing on a sheep ranch, he learned various skills such as shepherding, cooking, babysitting, and picked up fragments of Spanish and German from migrant farmhands. In Austin, he actively participated in the social scene as a talented musician, proficient with both the guitar and mandolin. During the subsequent years, Porter held diverse occupations including pharmacy, drafting, journalism, and banking. However, his career in banking was ill-suited for him as he displayed carelessness in bookkeeping and potentially embezzled funds. Subsequently accused of embezzlement by his employer in 1894, Porter lost his job but managed to evade indictment. Being an avid lover of literature, O Henry started writing as a hobby which led him to move to Houston in 1895 and join The Post, where he earned a monthly salary of $25. Adopting a unique approach to writing, O. Henry gathered material for his column by observing and conversing with people in hotel lobbies—a technique he continued to employ throughout his writing career.

O. Henry began his writing career in 1902, crafting a total of 381 short stories while residing in New York City. He dedicated himself to contributing one story per week to The New York World Sunday Magazine for more than a year. Cabbages and Kings, his initial published collection, presents a mix of both well-known and lesser-known works, all set in a fictional town located in Central America. These tales skillfully intertwine multiple sub-plots and larger narratives. O. Henry’s second collection, titled The Four Million, centers around the concept that only 400 individuals hold true significance within the vast metropolis of New York City. It is evident that O. Henry harbored great affection for this city as it serves as the backdrop for many of his stories.

O. Henry’s alcoholism significantly impacted his health and writing, ultimately leading to his death in 1910 due to liver cirrhosis, complications from diabetes, and an enlarged heart. Although his funeral occurred in New York City, he was buried in North Carolina where he was born. Despite facing personal challenges, O. Henry’s exceptional talent as a short story writer is clearly evident through the remarkable collection of stories he has left for us to admire.

Porter moved to New York in 1902 and wrote for various publications, including The New York Observer. Throughout the early 20th Century, O. Henry wrote many short stories covering different topics. His characters could be found in Texas’ cattle-lands, exploring the world of con artists, or dealing with social tensions and wealth disparities in turn-of-the-century New York. O. Henry had a unique talent for concisely and elegantly isolating and describing societal aspects in his writing. Typically, he told heartwarming stories about ordinary individuals that easily resonated with readers and kept their attention through unexpected endings. William Sydney Porter’s narratives often included plot and character developments that were reversed – just when readers thought they understood where the story was going, he suddenly shifted it towards a completely different outcome. Characters in his stories consistently surprised readers by revealing themselves to be completely different from how they were initially portrayed.

An illustration of these two ideas is present in the short story The Princess and the Puma. The protagonist, Josefa O’Donnell, defies the traditional princess stereotype by embracing a cowgirl persona, complete with guns and horse riding skills. Initially, readers anticipate that the hero, Ripley Givens, will come to the princess’ rescue when a mountain lion lurks near her at a watering hole. However, Porter alters the narrative by having Josefa supposedly rescue Givens from the lion instead and rejecting his marriage proposal. Porter frequently utilizes surprise endings as a technique in his works, and in The Princess and the Puma, it is revealed that the mountain lion Josefa shot was actually Givens’ pet, as he intended to protect it rather than her. Ultimately, the reader learns that the mountain lion had been causing trouble for multiple ranches and may not have been Givens’ pet after all. These recurring themes and techniques are characteristic of Porter’s short stories. As American Writers explained, “The stories exhibit a lighthearted tone, but underlying serious elements often exist just beyond their edges.”

Although his reputation has declined over time, William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, was highly popular during his lifetime. The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 78 notes that “Perhaps the reputation of no other American writer has undergone a more rapid and drastic reversal than that of William Sydney Porter.” While he may not be as intriguing to contemporary readers as he is to critics, Porter still commands a wide readership today. His literary classics are celebrated and widely read across the globe. Among his numerous wonderful works, “The Gift of the Magi” is considered Porter’s finest. This beautiful tale depicts a young struggling couple who make sacrifices during Christmas by selling their most cherished possessions to buy gifts for each other. The husband, deeply attached to his old watch, sells it to purchase combs and brushes for his wife. On the other hand, she cuts and sells her beloved hair to buy him a watch chain.

Although “The Gift of the Magi” is a love story, it is also a tale that emphasizes the significance of priorities, sacrifice, and commitment. Porter, as a skilled artist, successfully creates a strong sense of affection between the reader and the fictional couple, effectively conveying his intended messages.

Some other favorite stories include:

In the story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two men abduct a ten-year-old boy who proves to be incredibly unruly and annoying. Their frustration grows to such an extent that they eventually offer the boy’s father $250 just to reclaim him.

The Cop and the Anthem tells the tale of Soapy, a homeless man in New York City, who strives to be arrested in order to escape sleeping outdoors during the winter season. Despite engaging in different criminal activities and disruptive actions, such as befriending a young prostitute, Soapy fails to capture the attention of law enforcement. With despair engulfing him, he pauses near a church where he is deeply touched by the melody of an organ anthem. This experience prompts him to make a decision to change his life for the better. However, ironically enough, he ends up being charged with loitering and receiving a three-month prison sentence.

Jimmy Valentine, a safecracker, is released from prison and plans to rob a bank. However, he unexpectedly falls in love with the banker’s daughter. This prompts him to give up his life of crime and become Ralph Spencer, a shoemaker. Just as he is about to pass on his tools to an associate, someone recognizes him at the bank. Despite being present with his soon-to-be wife and her family, they discover a child trapped inside the locked vault. Knowing this could incriminate him again, Valentine courageously opens the safe to save the child. Surprisingly, the lawman doesn’t recognize him and allows him to leave without consequences.

“The Duplicity of Hargraves” is a brief narrative centered on the journey of a father and daughter who are on the verge of poverty, as they make their way to Washington, D.C.


The Gift of the Magi, which was first published in 1906 as part of O. Henry’s second collection of short stories called The four million, remains highly popular despite its age. It tells the story of a young married couple who struggle financially while buying Christmas presents for each other. This enduring popularity has led to many adaptations and retellings in literature, television, film, and parodies. Today, it is widely considered a beloved “Christmas story” that people enjoy reading during the holiday season.

The story begins with Della Dillingham Young having only $1.87 to purchase a gift for her beloved husband, Jim, just one day before Christmas. Overwhelmed by the situation, Della starts crying on the couch. This moment allows the author to provide some background information about Jim and Della’s situation – they reside in a run-down apartment and are financially disadvantaged, but their love for each other remains strong.

After regaining composure, Della looks at herself in the mirror, unties her hair, and inspects it. Her hair, which is beautiful, brown, and reaches her knees, is one of the two valuable possessions that the poor couple has. The other is Jim’s gold watch.

Leaving the apartment, Della heads over to Madame Sofronie’s hair goods shop to sell her hair for $20, resulting in her current total of $21.87. Using this money, she manages to purchase Jim an exquisite platinum watch chain for his watch, costing exactly $21.

After receiving her gift, Della eagerly heads back home and attempts to style her newly shortened hair using a curling iron. She is uncertain whether Jim will appreciate her new look, but she did what she needed to in order to find him a suitable gift. Once she finishes styling her hair, she busies herself with making coffee and preparing dinner. At 7pm, Jim arrives and finds Della eagerly waiting by the door. He stares intently at her, unable to comprehend that Della no longer has her long locks. Della is perplexed by his response and struggles to interpret its meaning.

After a brief period, Jim regains his composure and presents Della with her gift. He explains that his reaction will become clear once she opens it. Excitedly, Della unwraps the present and exclaims with joy. Jim has given her the coveted set of fancy combs she has desired for a long time. However, there is now a problem – she has no hair to use them on. Jim comforts Della as she sobs. Once she calms down, Della presents Jim with his gift, offering him the watch chain. Jim’s face lights up with a smile. He reveals that he sold his watch to purchase the combs for Della. He suggests that they put away their presents for now and enjoy their dinner together.

In conclusion, the narrator states that Della and Jim are the wisest gift-givers, being compared to magi. Despite having gifts that hold no personal value, they comprehend the depth of their love for each other and recognize its immeasurable worth.

Character Analysis

Della is a devoted woman who is described as loving, warm, selfless, and occasionally hysterical. Despite her poverty and cramped living conditions, she dedicates herself to being a homemaker. Her husband Jim is the center of her world, and she has been saving every penny to buy him the perfect Christmas present. However, expenses surpass her calculations, leaving her with only $1.87 to spend. Regardless of this setback, Della remains determined to find an extraordinary gift worthy of Jim. To accomplish this goal, she decides to sell her beloved possession – her hair – even though it brings tears to her eyes. Nonetheless, Della believes she had no other choice and assures Jim that it will grow back. Driven by love for her husband and the desire for a special gift for him, Della goes above and beyond.

It is Della’s concern that losing her hair will make her less attractive to Jim that bothers her the most (although she really doesn’t need to worry). She hardly thinks about herself at all, showing her incredible devotion. Della is so devoted that it may be slightly troubling. Differentiating Della from Jim might be challenging as she lives solely for her husband. However, it seems that her husband may also live solely for her. After all, he sacrifices his family heirloom, a valuable watch that cannot be replaced, in order to get her a gift. Considering their humble circumstances and the difficulty of his work, it is unclear what else he would have to live for besides Della. Therefore, it is likely that Jim is just as devoted to Della as she is to him.

Both Della and Jim, despite playing different roles, are in a relationship of equality and equal devotion. This makes Della’s devotion seem less strange and more wonderful, as it is meant to be. The main focus of the story is the utter devotion that Della and Jim have for each other. It is because of this devotion that they both sacrifice their most valuable possessions to buy gifts for one another. Their selflessness is what makes them wise givers, or magi, and teaches us the lesson about the true meaning of giving that the narrator wants to convey.

Although we never have the opportunity to see inside Jim’s mind and ascertain if his love for Della matches her love for him, you are welcome to remain skeptical about the heartwarming conclusion presented by the narrator and cynical towards Della.

Another possible criticism of Della is that she may seem excessively emotional. From the beginning, we see her crying heavily on the couch. Additionally, when she receives Jim’s gift, she both screams with joy and immediately starts crying.

And then there was an ecstatic scream of joy; however, unfortunately, it quickly transformed into a quick feminine change, resulting in hysterical tears and wails. This required the lord of the flat to immediately use all of his comforting abilities. Furthermore, throughout the story, Della consistently appears anxious and overly excited. Have you ever noticed how Della never simply walks or turns? Instead, she always “suddenly whirls.” For example, she “suddenly whirled from the window” or “with a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door.” Then there’s the instance when she “leap[s] up like a little singed cat and crie[s], ‘Oh, oh!'” merely because she wants Jim to receive his present so badly.

Della is extremely excitable, which some may find annoying. The narrator seems to believe that her excitement is a characteristic of femininity. However, we find Della’s enthusiasm endearing and it adds to her likability. She is deeply in love and this intensifies her emotions, causing her to quickly go from extreme happiness to extreme sadness. Many can relate to experiencing such emotional swings.

Jim, who is Della’s husband, caused Della to start crying when she realized her hair was actually gone. Our opinion is that this is the reason for her sudden outburst of wails over Jim’s present.

Jim’s job is not ideal. He is the sole provider for the Dillingham Young family, working long hours for a low salary. Recently, his income took a hit – he used to earn $30 a week, but now he’s down to only $20. The couple is having a tough time affording the expenses of their small flat. Hence, if Jim appears fatigued, serious, overworked, and slightly underweight, there is a valid explanation for it.

He appeared thin and extremely serious. Unfortunately, he was only twenty-two years old, and had the added responsibility of supporting a family. He required a new overcoat and was also lacking gloves.

Jim’s love for Della is what motivates him. Della is his everything. Although we don’t see as much of Jim’s emotions compared to Della’s, there is ample evidence to suggest that he is just as dedicated to her. Jim, like Della, sacrifices his most valued possession in order to find the ideal gift for the person he cares about. Additionally, his love for her is not solely based on her appearance, despite her concerns about it.

“Dell,” he asserted, “understand that nothing, not even a haircut or shave or shampoo, could diminish my love for my girl.”

Why does Jim have such strong feelings for Della? It is likely because she reciprocates those feelings for him.

Both Della and Jim display different levels of composure. Della reacts to Jim’s present loudly and emotionally, while Jim responds to hers calmly and happily by lying on the couch with a smile.

In The Gift of the Magi, Jim and Delia demonstrate their love by each making a great sacrifice to buy a special Christmas gift for the other. They each give up their most prized possession in order to obtain money for their partner’s gift. Della sells her beautiful, flowing hair to purchase a rare platinum fob chain for Jim’s gold watch. Similarly, Jim sacrifices his beloved watch to buy expensive tortoise shell combs for Della’s hair. When they exchange their gifts and discover the sacrifices they have made, they both laugh and decide to put the gifts away until Della’s hair grows back and Jim can retrieve his watch.

Their gifts were perfect because they gave from their hearts, which is the only true gift. O Henry portrays sacrificial love through the couple’s actions. Despite buying useless gifts for each other, they appreciate the love expressed through the act of providing a special gift. Jim and Delila love each other not for material wealth or possessions, but for the depth of their love. Their ability to make sacrifices for love suggests that their marriage is based on lasting virtue rather than superficial or temporary reasons. Jim and Delia share a timeless and eternal love, similar to the three wise men who knelt before baby Jesus in the manger. O Henry compares the couple’s love to the powerful love displayed in the birth of Jesus during the Christian tradition of Christmas when the three wise men paid homage to him.

Madame Sofronie, the owner of a hair shop that sells various hair goods, is described as a large, white, and chilly woman. She interacts with Della in a straightforward manner, showing no admiration for Della’s beautiful hair and casually proposes to purchase it for $20.

Madame Sofronie’s attitude sharply contrasts with that of Della and Jim. To both of them, Della’s hair is her most prized possession, her only prized possession, and selling it is a great sacrifice. However, none of this holds any importance to Madame Sofronie, who sees it as just another business transaction that may bring in more profit. She symbolizes “the cold, uncaring world” that exists beyond the sanctuary of love that Della and Jim have created. Additionally, she embodies a completely different approach to valuing things, purely based on the money they can bring in.

I. The theme of the story

1. The central theme explored in “Gift of the Magi” is love.

In this story, we meet a young, impoverished couple whose love for one another is the utmost priority in their lives. Their love is so strong that they make the ultimate sacrifice by giving up their most treasured possessions to buy Christmas presents for each other. Despite their financial struggles, they manage to create a warm and loving home environment, which stands in stark contrast to the bleakness of their poverty and the dreary world outside. Their love knows no bounds, although Della, the wife, harbors concerns about how her sacrifice might impact her husband due to its effect on her physical appearance. “Gift of the Magi” sends a clear message that true happiness can be attained solely through love.

2. Theme of Sacrifice in “The Gift of the Magi”

The main characters in “Gift of the Magi” are a husband and wife who sacrifice their most precious possessions to afford gifts for each other on Christmas Eve. The story focuses on Della’s decision and action to make the sacrifice, only to find out her husband has done the same. The narrator states that in their willingness to give up everything they have, they have shown themselves to be the wisest gift-givers. However, it is unclear what their sacrifice has achieved or how it has impacted them.

3. Wealth as a Theme in “The Gift of the Magi”

In “Gift of the Magi,” the notion of value is explored. Is something’s worth solely determined by its monetary value, or are there other factors that make it valuable? Despite being extremely poor, the main characters possess a love for one another that enriches their lives. This love drives them to sacrifice their most valuable possessions in order to exchange gifts. Their poverty may actually enable them to truly appreciate what truly matters.

The story also touches upon the theme of women and femininity. 4. The Gift of the Magi Theme of Women and Femininity

In the story “Gift of the Magi,” the central character is a woman named Della who is portrayed as lovable but occasionally hysterical. The narrator identifies her tendency to overreact as a feminine characteristic. Della’s extraordinary dedication to her husband prompts the consideration of whether their love is based on equality or a power imbalance. Additionally, the ending of the story has yet to be discussed.

1. The successful of the ending

O. Henry is famous for his “twist endings,” and the ending of “The Gift of the Magi” is perhaps the most renowned. In the story, Della sells her hair to purchase a chain for Jim’s watch, while Jim sells his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair. This presents a classic case of irony as their determination to find the perfect gift leads them to sacrifice their prized possessions, rendering the gifts useless. The outcome is completely opposite of what Jim and Della had intended. What adds to the bittersweetness of this ending is that it arises from their actions and good intentions; their gifts wouldn’t have been rendered useless if they had not given up their cherished possessions. Furthermore, since the story only focuses on Della, we are unaware of what has occurred until the very end, during the exchange itself. It is this sudden and unexpected irony that strikes at the very end, giving the ending its twist.

Now that we have discussed what constitutes a twist ending, let’s explore our feelings towards the conclusion. One perspective regards it as disastrous. Jim and Della appeared to be better off before the gift exchange. In the end, they traded their most treasured possessions to purchase gifts that are now rendered useless. Their original possessions – Jim’s family heirloom watch and Della’s literal hair – held intrinsic value. Moreover, their original possessions were made more precious due to their personal significance – the watch being passed down from Jim’s grandfather and Della’s hair being a part of her. Conversely, their exchanged gifts are merely new items bought from a store, lacking any special connection to either individual. As both parties aimed to find the perfect present for the other, this failure carries colossal weight.

According to the narrator, the gifts exchanged by Jim and Della in the last paragraph are considered the wisest gifts and are known as the “gifts of the magi”. Both characters have demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice their most valuable possessions for each other. This selfless love they have for one another is represented in these seemingly useless gifts. The sentimental value of the gifts surpasses their material worth, and they serve as reminders of their love for each other. These actions make the gifts even more special and personal compared to what they replaced. The couple’s noble thoughts and actions have made the Christmas gift incredibly significant and invaluable, making them wise.

Before the exchange, Jim and Della both had valuable possessions that belonged to them individually. Jim had a watch and Della had hair. In the exchange, they both give up their possessions and gain something new that doesn’t have sentimental value. This symbolizes their love for each other, which is something they share together. Through this gift exchange, they become closer in a concrete way. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry is a story about love and beauty in poverty. One of the reasons this story is successful is because it contains unexpected elements, especially in the end. In the beginning of the story, the reader learns about Della’s thoughts, decisions, and actions. These passages surprise the reader with Della’s ultimate sacrifice as a fragile woman.

The reader and the character of Della are in for a big surprise when they discover Jim’s actions. Up until this point, neither the reader nor Della were aware of Jim’s sacrifices and actions. They didn’t know that Jim, like Della, had sacrificed something precious for the sake of love. This surprise evokes a range of emotions in the reader, eventually leading to tears of happiness. Both Della and Jim quietly but decisively sell their most precious possessions in order to buy gifts for each other on Christmas. These gifts symbolize the beauty of their sacrifices for love. They understand the value of each other’s precious possessions and are willing to give them up for someone they love dearly. Their sacrifice illustrates that love is more important and valuable than any material possession. It is a simple, sincere, and emotional expression of love. Surprise is a common element in short stories, but the emotional surprise in “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry is particularly powerful.

2. The story’s main message

In his work, O.Henry showcases the idea that giving gifts necessitates hard work and relentless searching to discover the ideal gift for a friend or family member. These gifts often require sacrificing something valuable, whether it be money or a cherished possession. However, a gift doesn’t always have to be tangible; simply taking time off work to spend with friends can be the greatest gift they’ve ever received. A genuine gift has the power to profoundly impact someone’s life and establish a connection between the giver and receiver. The best gifts always come from within oneself. For example, when browsing in a store, if something catches your eye, you’ll instinctively know it’s the gift you’ve been seeking. A remarkable gift doesn’t need to be expensive.

Cite this page

“The Gift of the Magi” American short story. (2016, Jun 22). Retrieved from


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