The Gift of the Magi

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Value Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Value Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Gift of the Magi, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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"Gift of the Magi" revolves around a young couple, Della and Jim, who lack a lot in the way of material possessions and external amusements. The beginning of the story focuses on their poverty—the shabby couch, the lack of mirror, the eight-dollar flat, the broken doorbell. Despite this, the narrator adds that Jim always arrives home to be “greatly hugged. Which is all very good.” Their poverty doesn’t seem to affect their cozy home life on a daily basis, and the emotional value of having each other outweighs their lack of material wealth.

The question of material vs. inner value comes up again when Della finds the chain for Jim’s watch, which is “simple and chaste in design” but has value in its substance alone—Della likens this to Jim, who possesses inner value despite having a slight income. In the description of Jim’s watch and Della’s hair, the narrator compares them to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—an allusion that describes how much the watch and hair mean to Jim and Della, even if they aren’t truly comparable to an abundance of treasures and jewels, showing that value is subjective. The chatty narrator makes this clear when he says, “Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer.”

Value ThemeTracker

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Value Quotes in The Gift of the Magi

Below you will find the important quotes in The Gift of the Magi related to the theme of Value.
The Gift of the Magi Quotes

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Related Characters: Della, Jim
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

As a young couple struggling to make ends meet, Della and Jim rely on small points of pride—such as Della's hair and Jim's gold watch—to maintain their identity in the face of financial hardships. In this quote, the narrator notes that when Jim's salary was $30 a week, the couple did not feel the need to use the stately "Dillingham" in their shared married name; however, since his pay was reduced by one-third, they have begun considering how to sneak the extra, more aristocratic-sounding name back in little by little to regain some sense of higher-class identity and pride. But regardless of their names outside the home, or what is on their mailbox, inside the flat they are always "Della" and "Jim," a hallmark of the fact that their love for each other is not dependent on any level of money or worldly status. No matter how much or how little Jim makes, he will always be welcomed home warmly by Della, who unconditionally loves her husband despite their financial struggles. 

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Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

Related Characters: Jim
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite pinching pennies for months, Della is only able to save $1.87 with which to purchase a Christmas present for her husband Jim. As the couple lives on a slim salary, Della had been hoping to save enough money to buy Jim a nice present for the holiday. When she realizes that this is all she has to buy a gift, she cries for some time in despair and disappointment. Della unconditionally loves Jim, and wants to express this love in the form of a lavish present, the likes of which they can only afford to spend money on for special occasions. 

In this quote, Della hopes to purchase Jim something "fine and rare and sterling," a gift that is "worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim." To Della, her husband Jim himself is "fine and rare and sterling," a man whose worth is singular and enduring, regardless of trends or the times. Throughout the story, Della and Jim equate their love to the ability to buy a present worthy of the other person. Jim eventually buys Della beautiful, expensive combs that he believes are worthy of her love and beauty. However, it is through their willingness to sacrifice the worldly possessions that they personally cherish—Jim's watch, and Della's hair—that they ultimately express their enduring admiration and love. 

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. 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.

Related Characters: Della, Jim
Related Symbols: Della’s hair, Jim’s gold watch
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Though Jim and Della are poor in terms of their bank accounts, they are rich in three things: Della's hair, Jim's heirloom watch, and their mutual love for each other. The watch and Della's hair are special in that they are singular, unique items, not to be found anywhere else in the world. The items are priceless in their personal worth, meaning that even a richer couple with unlimited wealth would not be able to purchase them, and the poverty in which Della and Jim live does not mean that they lose these items. The fullness and beauty of Della's hair cannot be replicated on the head of a wealthier woman due to special products, and the rarity of Jim's watch only comes with antiquity and age over the years. O. Henry underscores the importance of these items using the hyperbolic, theoretical situations in which the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, two Biblical figures famous for their wealth, are jealous of the watch and the hair. By showing how impressive and priceless the hair and the watch are to the young couple, Henry thus renders the sale of the items in order to please the other person even more sacrificial and tragic. Though the items cannot be retrieved after they have been sold for a sum nowhere near their worth to the owner, the love that their sale proves is immeasurable. 

It was 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. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both.

Related Characters: Della, Jim
Related Symbols: Jim’s gold watch
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In order to have more money with which to buy Jim a Christmas present, Della sells her hair to a wig shop for $20 without a second thought. She roams around shops, searching for the perfect present, and finally happens upon what she believes to be the only chain worthy of accompanying Jim's watch.

Della places extreme importance on the personified qualities and worth of the chain because she purchase it to express the traits she admires most in her husband. She loves him for his simplicity, and how he appreciates that which has substance, not just "meretricious ornamentation." Ironically, Della is concerned about buying an expensive yet subtle present for someone she admires precisely for his lack of desire for shiny trinkets. However, purchasing the absolutely perfect present is important to her because she sacrifices her most precious possession, her knee-length hair, in order to purchase the chain. She is willing to sell her hair for any amount because she values Jim's happiness far and above any monetary amount her hair might be worth. More than the worth of just the chain, the gift she is giving to Jim is the immeasurable value of the chain, the hair, her sacrifice, and her unconditional love. 

Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer.

Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jim comes home, he is shocked by the sight of Della's short hair. She tells him that though she has cut her hair in order to buy him a Christmas present, the number of hairs cut off could not even come close to the amount of love she holds for him. Jim breaks out of his shocked trance and enfolds Della in a hug. 

In this quote, the narrator speaks to the fact that some things in life are intangible, and cannot be bought for any amount of money—regardless of whether a person has eight dollars or one million dollars in their pocket. Similarly, these intangible things cannot be logically explained or evaluated. For Della and Jim, their love, goodness, and willingness to sacrifice what they treasure to make the person they love happy, is worth a sum for which there can be no price tag. Their love for each other is something that is unwavering regardless of how much Jim's salary is that week, or how much hair is on Della's head. It is in this moment that the young couple reminds each other of how little importance they place on the watch and hair compared to their mutual respect and admiration. 

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 gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Related Characters: Della, Jim
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

After Della tells him she has cut and sold her hair in order to buy him a Christmas present, Jim admits that he sold his watch in order to buy Della the hair combs she has been admiring for months. Thus, Della sold her hair to buy Jim a chain for a watch he no longer has, and Jim sold his watch to buy Della combs for hair she no longer possesses. 

At the end of the story, and in this quote, the narrator invokes the Biblical story of the Three Wise Men, the "magi" who first gave the baby Jesus gifts in his manger, thus traditionally inventing the ritual of gift giving around Christmas. The narrator notes that though Della and Jim might seem "foolish" for their miscommunication in the gift exchange, they are in fact like magi themselves. The wisdom to be willing to sacrifice their greatest possessions in order to bring happiness to the person they love makes them the "wisest," and therefore just as sacred as the original magi.