Critical Analysis of the Gift of the Magi

June 10, 2018 General Studies

An Analysis of Elements in Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”

In Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi”, the reader is introduced to Della, whose financial instabilities overwhelm her as well as her husband Jim. However, Della maintains being a loving, devoted, and selfless wife with only one thing to live for, Jim. Jim is the sole breadwinner; he works long hours for very little pay. Things become more arduous when his pay was cut from thirty dollars a week to twenty dollars a week. He and his wife struggle to cover basic household and living expenses. In spite of living in poverty, his love for Della is what keeps him putting one foot in front of the other. A close analysis of the setting, Biblical symbolism, and themes reveal the best gifts are those of love and sacrifice which exemplifies unselfish love.

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Almost immediately, in the opening of the story, Henry brings to the attention of the reader the two most important details of the story’s setting: it takes place on Christmas Eve and Della and her husband, Jim, live an unpretentious flat. The story is dependent upon the fact that Christmas is less than twenty-four hours away and Della, temporarily with insufficient funds, needs to buy her husband’s gift.

Henry sketches their home and living conditions with just enough detail: cheap, barely furnished, and a broken mailbox and doorbell, to vividly convey their poverty. Also, the lackluster setting in which Della and her husband, Jim, live creates a contrast with the warmth and richness of their unconditional love for one another.

Again Henry makes a sharp contrast between the richness and the obvious poverty in which Della and Jim lives by making a reference to the Magi, the Queen of Sheba, and King Solomon; all are royal and rich in the Bible. This contrast is intended to show that Della’s and Jim’s love for one another exemplifies what it truly means to be rich.

In “The Gift of the Magi”, Henry ties up the loose ends by ending the story with a homily which enable the reader to ascertain who the Magi are and the symbolism to the story. Henry writes, “The Magi, as you know, were wise men . . . who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones . . . . And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gift, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi”.

Henry then mentions the beauty of Della’s hair and how it would evoke jealousy in the Queen of Sheba because, “Had the Queen of Sheba live in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts”.

In addition to Henry alluding to Queen Sheba’s jealousy, he introduces Jim’s most valued possession, his heir loomed gold watch, and alludes to King Solomon’s envy, “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”.

Della and Jim love each other unconditionally and that love becomes apparent when they finally realize the biggest sacrifice each of them made is futile. In spite of their sacrifices, the love and affection remains. “The Gift of the Magi” suggests that the gift itself does not mean as much as the love the gift was given with.

The two main characters in “The Gift of the Magi” sacrifice their most valued possessions to be able to afford gifts for one another. To get money for Jim’s present Della starts to make sacrifices months in advance but one instance in particular, “Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied”, leaves her especially embarrassed after only saving one dollar and
eighty-seven cents.

Furthermore, we watched Della make the decision to sell her hair and go through with that decision, “Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length”. There is not a specific instance when Jim pawned his watch in order to buy Della a set of tortoise-shell combs; however, it was made known his tremendous sacrifice for his wife.

In more ways than one, “The Gift of the Magi” is about what it means for something to be of value. Is value how much money something is worth or is it those things which are more valuable than money, a thing such as love. This story suggests that Della’s and Jim’s love for one another exceeds any amount of money and any material possession and as a result, they are rich, always have been, and always will be. Their poverty, “One dollar and eighty-seven cents”, enables them to appreciate what really matters.


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