Analysis of O' Henry's Short Story "The Gift of the Magi": Neatness, Brevity and a Significant Incident

As A Short Story
To be perfect short story neatness, brevity and a significant incident or an aspect of character or an experience of some psychological moment is essential. Within its short frame work, it must have a beginning, middle and an end. There must be completeness in its structure. All the elements plot, character, dialogue, descriptions and background must be organically connected with each other. Generally a good story has a surprising end which bears a sense of endlessness. All these characteristics of a good short story are fulfilled in the short story of O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. The story contains Porter’s characteristic ironical twist at the end that is surprising and at the same time striking to the readers. Jim and Della’s bold self sacrifice for the sake of love comes unexpectedly to the readers, but none the less convincing and admirable.

O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
 The Gift of the Magi one of the best-known American short stories, by celebrated American short-story writer William Sydney Porter, who wrote it under the pseudonym O. Henry and was published in 1906 in a collection of his short stories, The Four Million. Like The Furnished Room, and The Ransom of Red Chief, The Gift of the Magi also bears simple yet effective use of paradoxical coincidences to produce ironic endings. The story contains many of the elements for which O. Henry is widely known, including poor, working-class characters, a humorous tone, realistic detail, and a surprise ending. A major reason given for its enduring appeal is its affirmation of unselfish love. Such love, the story and its title suggest, is like the gifts given by the wise men, called magi, who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jesus.


 Written between 1905 and 1906, the story is close enough to everybody’s heart. It is of universal significance of love and passion. The action takes place in the New York City, in a very unassuming flat, a drab, gray, and decaying flat. The occasion is the festive Christmas Eve. As Jim and Della’s very humble abode brings out their poverty vividly, their selfless sacrifice of valuable possessions spiritualizes their love and makes them wise enough to call magi. Read More Short Stories

Point of View

Third Person (Omniscient)

The story is told in the perspective of Della and much of the feelings of Jim are vague to us. The third person limited omniscient paints much of floating desires of Della and whenever Jim is off scene he can not be located in the story line. However, we can not miss that Jim and Della are presented in the story as an entity of love and union of true minds. Thus the feelings of Jim and Della will have to be the same that should not have to be repeated which might have spoiled the interest of the story. Read More Short Stories

The Title from the Bible: Symbolism, Imagery &  Allegory

The importance and influence of the Bible in O’ Henry’s writing may be explained broadly in both textual and philosophical terms. The textual explanation is the author’s broad exploration of the meaning of the text to ascertain the power of tradition, custom, and creed guided by the Bible. The philosophical explanation, however, is what many authors continue to experience as the power of Christ and his divine words. The title words of many of O’ Henry’s story also follow the same biblical orientation. In reference to the present title The Gift of the Magi the magi and their gifts are directly related to the biblical story. According to the Christian Bible, Wise Men of the East, also called Magi or Three Kings of the Orient were the trio of kings or noble pilgrims who followed a guiding star to Israel to pay homage to the newborn Christ child, bringing with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-12). According to the story, the magi were wise folks. The gifts the magi gave to Jesus must have been wise too. These gifts must have been the smartest, best gifts anyone could have chosen. And according to the narrator, that makes the two characters in this story – Jim and Della – just like the magi: they gave each other the wisest gifts of all by means of sacrifice. Read More Short Stories

Added to this in connection with Jim and Della's prize possessions there are two other biblical allusions. Della's hair is said to be so gorgeous and pretty that it would minimize the glory of the Queen of Sheba. Jim's golden watch would have been the envy of King Solomon. Henry says, “Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.” In the biblical Book of Kings (I Kings 10), Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon at his court in Jerusalem. Hoping to impress him with her wealth, she arrives with a camel-train laden with spices, gold, and jewels. She is overwhelmed by the splendor of Solomon’s state and the Queen plies Solomon with difficult questions and is astonished at the wisdom revealed in his answers.
Theme of Love
Love, according to Porter’s teaching, does not depend on worthiness or merit but is a gift of one’s sovereign grace earned through selfless devotion. The Gift of the Magi complies with this. It is the story of a poor, young couple whose love for each other is the most important thing in their lives. Such is their love that they're led to sacrifice their most valuable possessions to find Christmas gifts for each other. The warm home they make together contrasts with the drabness of their poverty and the dreary world outside. This story is about love and about what people do for the ones that they love. Read More Short Stories
  Theme of Marriage
 Marriage is commonly defined as a partnership between two members of opposite sex known as husband and wife. However, it is more than living together- it is bond of love, shared economics and shared emotions. The couple in the story highlights these points also. Read More Short Stories
  Theme of Sacrifice
In Christianity the death of Christ on the cross is considered an exemplary and perfected sacrifice offered to expiate the sins of humanity. Christ's sacrifice by crucifixion is a sign of his love for the humanity. Here too in the story sacrifices of lover’s valuable possession on Christmas Eve is close to a ritual act in which a consecrated offering is made to their respective partner in order to establish, perpetuate, or restore a sacred bond between man and woman—love and marriage. Read More Short Stories

Theme of Wealth

A person's holdings of currency, bank balances, and other financial instruments constitute personal wealth but the real worth is the respect for humanity and the shared emotions. Economists estimate wealth by measuring the actual physical stock of assets but lover’s real assets are devotion, dedication and mutual respect. In The Gift of the Magi our hero and heroin are very poor in financial condition but what made them superior to others are the qualities mentioned above. Read More Short Stories

Theme of Women and Femininity

*      Della

The main character of The Gift of the Magi Della is not only good looking pretty wife but also a helpless woman economically. The poor couple can not earn sufficient money to gift each other Christmas presents and Della looks more pathetic as she is determined to sell her own locks for some dollars. In this perspective it can be said that in the story the struggle of Della is also a minute study of middle class woman folk of the early 20th century- socially and economically. Read More Short Stories

*      Madame Sofronie

Madame Sofronie, the owner of a hair shop is in sharp contrast to the couple. She is "large," "white," and "chilly” and her only concern is the hair of Della and how does it profit. She is the representative of the materialistic world and primarily odd to the emotional world of the story. However she is also a bold statement of womanhood and economic strength. It is also ironic that Della sells her hair to Madame Sofronie, another woman. Read More Short Stories

The Ending

O. Henry is known for his "twist endings” or magic ending. Naturally, The Gift of the Magi also ends with an ironic situation as Della sells her hair and Jim his watch; and the gifts are of no use as the comb or platinum chain has already lost their partners.
Reference: Henry, O. The Best Short Stories of O. Henry. New York: Random House, 1945.
                   Best American Short Stories. OUP

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