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Literature / The Gift of the Magi

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"The Gift of the Magi" is a 1906 short story by O. Henry, where a poor couple, Jim and Della, has little more than each other. Della sells her beautiful hair to a wigmaker to buy a chain for her man's heirloom watch. On Christmas day, she discovers that Jim has sold his watch to buy her combs for her hair. The original story can be found here.

This story has become one of the all-time classic Christmas stories, and with good reason. Also frequently used to teach Dramatic Irony. A popular source for Whole Plot Reference; see "Gift of the Magi" Plot. It was set as an opera by American composer David Conte.


"The Gift of the Magi" provides examples of:

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Not long before this story was written, the U.S. minted half-cent, two cent and three cent coins, making it perfectly possible for Della to have $1.87 with $0.60 in pennies. note 
  • Always Need What You Gave Up: The Dramatic Irony comes from the fact that Jim gave up his watch and Della gave up her hair without knowing how useful it would be for the other's gift.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The title is a reference to the Three Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the infant Jesus in The Four Gospels.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The couple's dearly bought gifts are both useless, but it shows them how much they love each other, which is the True Meaning of Christmas.
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  • "Gift of the Magi" Plot: Trope Namer, and Trope Maker. Della sells her hair to get the money to buy Jim a chain for his watch, and Jim sells the watch to buy Della combs for her hair.
  • Happily Married: Jim and Della clearly love each other very much. In fact, the whole twist of the story happens because they love each other more than they love their own treasures.
  • Important Haircut: Della cuts her hair and sold it so that she can have enough money to buy a gift for her man.
  • Irony: What they did for their gifts makes the other's gift (at least temporarily) useless.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: The narrator. Gets hilariously snarky at points, but towards the end especially shows a deep idealism towards the two "foolish children" and calls them the wisest of all.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Della is worried that her hair, once cut short, will make her look like a Coney Island chorus girl.
  • Mandatory Twist Ending: Wouldn't be an O. Henry story without one.
  • Memento MacGuffin: Jim's watch.
  • Mixed Metaphor: At one point the narrator says "the next hour tripped by on rosy wings," then asks the reader to forget the mixed metaphor.
  • Privacy by Distraction: A fourth-wall-breaking example. The narrator tells the audience to look at some unimportant thing in the other direction while Jim and Della are hugging.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Della's hair grows very fast, and it reaches to about her knees.
  • Riches to Rags: Downplayed. At one point in the past Jim's salary was as much as thirty dollars a week (described as if it was a prosperous, golden era), but is now twenty dollars a week, with almost half of that going towards the rent.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: A classic example, but still ends on a high note.
  • Shaking Her Hair Loose: Della is said to have hair past her hips, but keeps it pinned up all the time. She lets it down dramatically just before it gets cut off.
  • Short Story: It's only two and a half pages long, but speaks volumes.
  • The Three Wise Men: The Magi get a mention, and give the story their name, as the Trope Makers of giving Christmas presents.
  • True Meaning of Christmas: You betcha.
  • Twist Ending: Della, after selling her hair to give Jim the watch chain, learns that he sold the watch to buy her combs for her hair.
  • Two Rights Make a Wrong: Both Jim and Della's gifts were extremely thoughtful and sacrificial; the combination of the two good intentions had unlucky results.


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