O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” is one of the most famous of all time. Here’s a look at two of the most prominent themes in this popular story.
“The Gift of the Magi” Theme: Unselfish Love
The overwhelming feeling from the story, amplified by the surprise ending, is of the young couple’s unselfish love for each other.
This is introduced immediately when we’re told that Della had been saving for months for Jim’s gift. Her desire was strong enough to push through the embarrassment of shaving a penny or two off her vegetable and butcher’s bills.
Knowing she doesn’t have enough to get a nice present for Jim makes Della cry. She wants something “fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.” Clearly, she holds her husband in high esteem and wants to express her love to him.
Della lacks fine material things. Her hair is her prized possession, so it’s a considerable sacrifice to give it up. We saw how difficult it was for her when, before leaving her flat, she “faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two” fell to the carpet. Her concern is twofold—she’ll be losing her prized possession, and she doesn’t know if Jim will like the change.
It’s also noteworthy that Della didn’t think of selling her hair until the day before Christmas. She would have known before this that she wouldn’t have enough money, but selling her hair doesn’t occur to her until the urgency is at its peak. This is obviously a last resort idea.
Up until Jim enters the story, we’re left wondering if this tender feeling is one-sided.
When he snapped out of his confusion, he gave Della a long hug. He told her that no change to her hair would change his feelings for her.
When his gift is revealed—expensive combs that his wife had admired—we know that he had a similar desire to get his wife a worthy present. What’s more, it tells us he noticed that she wanted them. He paid attention to her and wanted to please her.
Jim’s selflessness is heightened by the fact that he needs a new overcoat and gloves.
When it’s revealed that he had to sell his prized possession to buy them, we know that his love is as unselfish as his wife’s.
When the twist of the ending hits us, it’s hard not to be touched by the unselfish love that each showed. They each sacrificed their best for the other.
“The Gift of the Magi” Theme: Poverty
A secondary theme that is necessary for the story to work is poverty.
Jim only earns $20 a week, and their rent is $8 a week. 40% of the couple’s income goes to rent. This doesn’t leave much for the basics, let alone any extras.
Previously, he had been making $30 a week. It’s possible the pay cut precipitated Della’s scrimping and saving. We’re told she had been saving for months, not the whole year. They might still be learning to adjust to their reduced income.
Their poverty is established in the description of their flat and neighborhood. The mailbox and the doorbell are broken. When Della looks out the window she sees “a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard.” There’s nothing to be cheerful about here.
Della’s jacket and hat are both old. Jim needs a new overcoat and doesn’t have gloves.
This is despite the fact that Jim works long days. We’re told he’s never late getting home, and he doesn’t get home until 7 PM.
Clearly, Della and Jim are barely getting by. Their circumstances make it all the more moving that their focus is on each other rather than material things.
I hope this look at themes in “The Gift of the Magi” has been helpful.