The Gift of the Magi - Study Guide
Which is the better gift, the comb or the pocket watch? O. Henry's short story, The Gift of the Magi (1905) offers a memorable ironic twist. We hope our study guide is particularly useful for teachers and students to study irony and appreciate O. Henry's clever literary devices.
Read the story: The Gift of the Magi, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Literary Devices, Etymology of "Magi", Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Readings, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Della Dillingham - The young woman, married to Jim, whose prized possession was her long, beautiful hair.
Jim Dillingham - The young man, married to Della, whose prized possession was an old pocketwatch with a leather strap.
Plot Summary: Jim and Della Dillingham are a poor, young married couple who don't have enough money to buy Christmas gifts. Both sell their most prized possessions in order to pay for a gift for the other at Christmas time.
While The Gift of the Magi certainly falls in the fictional short story genre, it employs what could be called a sub-genre of "dramatic irony."
Dramatic irony is where the reader learns a secret that the main character(s) don't know about yet. Without the other knowing, both traded their most valuable possessions (priceless) for a gift that could no longer be used by the other because that person gave up their own possession. We wish we could stop Della from selling her hair, or Jim from selling his watch, but we can't. That's what makes for an engaging storyline that keeps us hooked. We want to know how they'll react when they find out.
Intimacy - O. Henry effectively employs a literary technique of creating intimacy with his reader, addressing us directly so we feel like we are in the same room with the main characters. Examples:
"...already introduced to you as Della"
"Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 Bat."
Self-deprecating - O. Henry makes fun of himself and his writing
"Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present."
Similes - Comparing Della's hair, "rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters" and describing herself after the haircut: "[I] look like a Coney Island chorus girl." Describing Jim standing still, "as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail."
Queen of Sheba
Yearning for what you can't have vs. receiving what you can't use
Material happiness vs. spiritual or emotional happiness
Magi is Latin, meaning skilled magicians, astrologers. Singular is "magus" which is the Persian root from Indo-Iranian "magh" which means powerful and rich, expressing ability. The Latins called them wise men, the Persians called them Magi.
Also from the Greek "magos" (5th century BCE) which refers to the Persian priestly and learned class as portrayed in The Bible in The Gospel of Matthew
According to Ludolph of Saxony (died 1378):
"The three pagan kings were called Magi not because they were magicians but because of the great science of astrology which was theirs. Those whom the Hebrews called scribes and the Greeks, philosophers, and the Latins, wise men, the Persians called Magi. And the reason that they were called kings is that in those days it was the custom for the philosophers and wise men to be rulers."
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies."
"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."
"Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch eveyr time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy."
"So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her."
"'I buy hair,' said Madame. 'Taker yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it.'"
"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."
"Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"
"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 dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit."
"Let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present."
"[The magi] invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication."
"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."
1. The opening line, "One dollar and eight-seven cents" (in 1905) is equivalent to how much in today's dollars? Here's an Inflation calculator
Why is this amount both important and unimportant in the story?
2. Define irony and how O. Henry's employs it in the story.
3. Discuss the themes of sacrifice and love in the story.
4. Do Della's and Jim's reactions to their predicament giving up their most valued possesions for gifts that are now useless surprise you? Rather than be angry at eachother or sad, Jim suggests they put the presents away for awhile and says, "And now suppose you put the chops on." How do material possessions compare to their true love for one another?
5. Della coveted the hair combs without the least hope of possession, and now that they were hers, she couldn't use them. Think of a situation in your own life that might be defined as ironic.
6. Why did O. Henry choose this simile? "Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail."
7. Describe O. Henry's use of Biblical references (the magi, King Solomon, Queen Sheba) and his use of symbolism that Ella and Jim are the magi. Link to The Holy Bible, Book of Matthew
8. Compare the events of "The Adoration of the Magi" to O. Henry's story. Recommended reading: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, The Three Kings, particularly noting his lines:
"They [the people] thought the Wise Men were men insane" and, after the kings presented their precious gifts:
"And the mother wondered and bowed her head, and sat as still as a statue of stone; her heart was troubled yet comforted..."
9. Describe the meaning of "wise" in the story. What does "word to the wise" mean (still a commonly used idiom)?
10. What's the definition of a "meaningful gift"? Why do you think this story is particularly touching at Christmas?
11. Compare the elements of irony in Federigo's Falcon with The Gift of the Magi. Identify literary devices used by each author to engage his reader in the protagonists' plight.
12. Read O. Henry's story, The Last Leaf, compare its themes of sacrifice and irony with The Gift of the Magi.
Essay prompt #1: Describe your own philosophy of gift giving (and receiving) and what makes for the most meaningful gifts. Relate your experiences to the story.
Essay prompt #2: Think of an incident which you consider ironic in your own life (or relate a movie or story where irony is central to the plot). Why is irony so appealing to readers/viewers? Discuss how coming to terms or resolving the conundrum is important.
Compare The Gift of the Magi to other stories of the sub-genre "dramatic irony":
When comparing uses of dramatic irony, discuss plot, themes, the role of irony in engaging the reader, and contrasts that make each story unique.
Teachers: Challenge students to identify other stories they've read which contain dramatic irony, perhaps assign them to compose their own, to more fully appreciate the richness and appeal of irony in storytelling. It's both a pleasure for the audience and the writer!
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The situational irony in "The Gift of the Magi" arises from the fact that both Jim and Della sell their most prized possessions in order to buy the other a special Christmas gift, but the gift each buys is specifically designed for the prized possession each one sold. Della sells her hair so she can get the money to buy Jim a chain for his watch; Jim sells his watch so he can buy Della the special combs for her hair that she has been wanting for so long.
Jim is the first to recognize the irony. When he returns from work, he immediately notices that Della has cut her hair:
His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della, at first, is worried that he doesn't like how she looks. She pleads with him:
"Jim, darling ... don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present.... I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast."
Of course, it's not her looks that Jim is concerned about. He tells Della:
"Don't make any mistake, Dell ... about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."
When she opens the gift, she immediately sees why he was so taken aback,
For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.
Della repeats, both for his and her own benefit, that her hair grows fast, and then turns her attention to the present she bought him. She hands him the watch, saying, "Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."
At this, Jim can only smile. Finally, he explains, "I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs." The author does not reveal Della's reaction. The reader can assume she does what Jim asks her after this - put the chops on for dinner - and that the two eat their Christmas dinner knowing how much they are loved.
This, then, is what they learn. They learn they are loved so much that their partner is willing to sacrifice their most prized possession for them. The author brings this home in his final comments about the magi:
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. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication.
He then calls Jim and Della "foolish children ... who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house," but he soon says what he really believes:
... of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
They are wise for they know to value people over possessions, love over material wealth, and to demonstrate that love through generosity and personal sacrifice.