The Gift of the Magi | Study Guide

O. Henry

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The Gift of the Magi | Themes



Della Young and Jim Young's deep love for each other is the central theme of "The Gift of the Magi." It makes them willing to sacrifice their most prized possessions in order to buy a Christmas gift for the other person. Both show they value their relationship more than material things.

Della's love for Jim is evident in her willingness to live in a shabby apartment so Jim can pursue his career ambitions. He is making less money than in the past, but she does not blame him for their bleak financial circumstances. Instead she tries to stretch her budget by haggling with the grocer, vegetable man, and butcher in order to get the most for her money. She thinks very highly of Jim, wanting to buy him a gift that is "fine and rare and sterling," which is how she perceives him.

Jim similarly loves Della. He looks at her shorn head without anger or disapproval, affirming his love for her goes beyond her physical appearance. He tells her there isn't anything that could make him like her any less. He is calm and supportive rather than critical or demeaning, showing his love is based on mutual acceptance and endearment.


Jim and Della's selflessness is a major theme in the story. Both have given up much to live in New York. Jim has taken a job with a low salary. Della is forced to make ends meet by haggling with vendors. Both are wearing old clothes. They live in a barely furnished apartment. As a couple, they are willing to sacrifice a more comfortable life to allow Jim to pursue his ambition of working in New York.

At Christmastime, Jim and Della want to do something special for the other, however. Unable to squeeze enough money out of Jim's paycheck to buy a gift, they each sell their most prized possession. Their desire to make their partner happy is more important to them than any wish to please themselves. Considering neither of them owns much, this is indeed remarkable. Despite their dreary environment, lack of possessions, and financial straits, both put the interests of the other person above their own.

Material versus Spiritual

Della and Jim's spiritual or emotional connection is portrayed as more important to them than any material or physical possession. When they discover their actions have canceled out each other's gifts, they reveal what matters most to them. Rather than regretting what they have lost, they recognize they have something of far greater value—their love and concern for each other. Jim tells Della he will continue to like her no matter what she does to her hair. Della confirms her love for her husband is greater than the length of the hairs on her head.

The narrator emphasizes the theme of spiritual over material qualities through a biblical allusion that mentions the magi, wise men from the East who brought gifts to Christ when he was born and who "invented the art of giving Christmas presents." The narrator considers Della's and Jim's gifts to each other equal to or as wise as those given by the magi. This is a reference not to the combs and watch chain they gave each other, but to their giving of themselves.

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