The Gift of the Magi | Study Guide

O. Henry

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The Gift of the Magi | Symbols


The Magi

Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas day. Jesus is believed to be the son of God who took a fleshly form for the purpose of saving humankind. According to the biblical New Testament, on the day Christ was born three wise men, or magi, saw a great star in the East. They had been waiting for this star because they believed it would appear when a savior came to Earth. The three magi—Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior—followed the star to Bethlehem so they could give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Although intended for the son of god, these gifts were ordinary in nature because their value was spiritual rather than material. Gold, a metal, is a symbol of earthly kingship; frankincense, an incense, is a symbol of godliness; and myrrh, an embalming oil, is a symbol of death. Thus the gifts were given in recognition of Jesus's importance within the Christian story.

In "The Gift of the Magi," the magi symbolize wisdom. The narrator admonishes Della and Jim as "two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house," but then admits "they are wisest." The allusion to the magi in O. Henry's title suggests that Della's and Jim's sacrificial gifts also transcend material value to reinforce the spiritual value of their love for each other. Such working-class people may lack physical possessions, but they do not necessarily lack spiritual values. Common, everyday people—such as the young couple in the story—can be as wise as the magi.

The Youngs' Apartment

The apartment in which Jim Young and Della Young live is a symbol of their reduced financial status. It is a drab apartment, furnished with a worn carpet, shabby couch, and a cheap, almost unusable mirror. It has a broken door buzzer and "a letter-box into which no letter would go." Their apartment represents all such apartments: places lacking in beauty, with only the barest physical necessities for the survival of working-class people.

Despite the bleak physical appearance of their apartment, it is a place where human interactions transcend the environment. Jim and Della share their lives with each other just as they would if they were living in a more palatial apartment. Lack of material possessions is no obstacle to their love. O. Henry shows the working class may be impoverished when it comes to physical possessions, but not necessarily in spirit and love.

Della's Hair

Della Young's hair symbolizes her feminine beauty and sensuality. She clearly considers it her most prized possession. It is very long, hanging down past her knees. The narrator describes it as "rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters ... ma[king] itself almost a garment." The image evoked is of a naked woman wrapped in her hair, much like Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Della considers her hair more beautiful than the Queen of Sheba's jewels and gifts. This makes her hair quite extraordinary, since the Queen of Sheba's gifts to King Solomon were known to have been spectacular. It also reveals that a woman's beauty is independent of her wealth or station in life. Indeed, a woman who possesses hair such as Della's can be as beautiful and physically enticing as a queen.

Jim's Watch

Jim Young's gold watch symbolizes prosperity and success. Just as many people today wear Rolexes and other expensive watches as a symbol of their success, many men wore gold watches in the past to show they were prosperous. Like Jim's watch, these gold watches were passed down through the generations as objects of value to be treasured and worn with pride.

Jim's watch was passed down from his grandfather to his father, and then from his father to him. The narrator mentions that Jim was rather snobbish about owning such a fine item, and was prone to checking the time just so he could show it off. Owning such a valuable object seemed to indicate the owner possessed similar characteristics as the object. Della believes Jim has "quietness and value," like his watch.

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