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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.

A young married couple, Jim and Della, have very little money, but each has one treasure: she has long and beautiful hair, and he owns a valuable heirloom pocketwatch. Desperate to give her man something nice for Christmas, Della sells her hair to a wigmaker to buy a chain for Jim's watch. When she proudly presents it to him, he reveals that he sold the watch to buy a set of combs to put up her hair.

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 original story can be found here.

"The Gift of the Magi" provides examples of:

  • '20s Bob Haircut: Della styles her new short hair with curls to look as feminine as possible, but she still worries that Jim will think she looks like "a Coney Island chorus girl".
  • Act of True Love: Della sells her treasured hair to buy a gift for Jim. Jim sells his valuable watch to buy a gift for Della.
  • 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 that their sacrifice would make the other's gift useless.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The story compares Della and Jim to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — Biblical figures of wealth — and says that they each had something those august figures would have envied. This is subtle foreshadowing to the ending, where they are deemed wiser in their "foolishness" than the Magi, the Ur Examples of Christmas giving.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The couple's dearly-bought gifts are made worthless by the other's sacrifice, but the act of giving them proves that they both loved each other more than their own treasures. The narrator calls them the wisest givers of all (immediately after referring to both of them as "foolish children").
    • On the other hand, Jim's gift to Della will not be much of a total waste once her hair grows back.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Of a sort — the nameplate to their apartment reads "Mr. James Dillingham Young," which fit when they had more money but seems presumptuous given that they're just scraping by now.
    Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D.
  • 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 dearest possessions.
  • 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.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: A different take on the usual in that the character is showing off her hair to a non-love-interest: Della takes her hair down once to admire it one last time, and a second time to offer it to the hair-buyer.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is a reference to the Three Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the infant Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Della's hair is her glory. When it's gone, her main fear is that Jim won't think she's pretty.
  • 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.
  • Mood Whiplash: Poor Della goes all over the emotional map in one afternoon, most notably when Jim reveals that his gift to her is the set of combs she's always wanted.
  • 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.
  • 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. In 2022 dollars, that's about $937 and $624/week, respectively.
  • Selling One's Own Hair: Della cuts and sells long beautiful hair for $20 so that she can have enough money to buy a gift for her man.
  • "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 once to have a look at it, and then again just before it's all cut off.
  • Short Story: It's only two and a half pages long, but speaks volumes.
  • Simple, yet Opulent: Della's choice of a gift for Jim is "a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation — as all good things should do." She thinks it combines quietness and value, just like Jim.
  • The Three Wise Men: The Magi get a mention, and give the story its name, as the Trope Makers of giving Christmas presents.
  • True Meaning of Christmas: You betcha. Specifically, it’s giving a thoughtful gift out of a self-sacrificial desire for the person you love to be happy.
  • 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: Either played straight or subverted, depending on perspective. Both Jim and Della's gifts were extremely thoughtful and sacrificial; the combination of the two good intentions had unlucky results. But imagine the heartbreak if only one of them had sacrificed their treasure...