The Gift of the Magi


O. Henry

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The Gift of the Magi: Genre 1 key example

Explanation and Analysis:

"The Gift of the Magi" is a short story. It's part of the literary movement known as realism, which developed in the mid-1800s and aimed to portray everyday life, especially among the middle and lower classes, without idealism. Realism shows up in the clear, unromantic details of Jim and Della's life: the shame of negotiating with merchants to buy everyday items, the dramatic struggle to afford Christmas gifts despite saving money for months, and the threadbare apartment. Though the story also highlights Jim and Della's affectionate marriage and the happiness they share after Jim gets home from a long day at work, it doesn't downplay the hardship of getting by on very little.

"The Gift of the Magi" is also a parable, a story that offers a moral lesson at the end, often using relatable, everyday imagery. The parable isn't heavy-handed. In fact, it's only past the story's halfway point that the moral aspect of the story is explicitly named. Jim has just come home and seen Della's haircut; after Della explains her sacrifice and the couple embrace, the narrator remarks:

"Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on."

This quote establishes the reader's expectation that the story will conclude with a lesson of some kind. Though an answer to the narrator's question isn't given, the answer is implied—that no matter whether the Youngs are rich or poor, it's their love and generosity that make their marriage happy. However, a conventionally wise person—"a mathematician or a wit"—wouldn't be expected to understand this truth. Interestingly, this statement about wise people is juxtaposed with an allusion to the biblical "wise men," the magi, who brought "valuable" gifts to the baby Jesus. The wording makes it unclear, but "that was not among them" probably refers to tangible riches—the kind that worldly wisdom celebrates. At this point, the narrator just promises that this "dark," or mysterious, "assertion" will be clarified soon—plainly signaling that a moral will be offered.

Sure enough, after Jim and Della have exchanged the gifts they cannot use, the story concludes as follows:

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. [...] 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. [...] They are the magi.

As the reader is now prepared to expect, the story ends with a lesson; the narrator unpacks the "dark assertion" hinted at earlier. The allusion to the magi is picked up again as the narrator now compares Jim and Della directly to the biblical gift-givers. Though the young couple's sacrificial giving appears "foolish" to "the wise of these days," the willingness to give up one's greatest earthly treasure is actually "wise" by the magi's standards. This is the parable's lesson: that true wealth consists not in literal riches, but in generosity like theirs. Anyone who emulates it, then, can be as wise as Jim and Della, and indeed as wise as the magi.