'The Gift of the Magi': Questions for Study and Discussion

O. Henry's Famous Holiday Story of Love and Sacrifice

1952: Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain (1925 - 2003) star in 'The Gift of the Magi', one of five stories by O Henry grouped together under the title of 'O Henry's Full House'. This segment was directed by Henry King for 20th Century Fox

 

Hulton Archive / Stringer/Getty Images

"The Gift of the Magi" is one of the best-known and most-emulated and adapted short stories in modern American literature. Written in 1905 by O. Henry, the pen name used by William Sydney Porter, it tells the story of a poor, young married couple, Jim and Della, who want to buy Christmas gifts for each other but don't have enough money. Originally published in The New York Sunday World newspaper, "The Gift of the Magi" appeared in the O. Henry anthology "The Four Million" in 1906.

The magi of the title refers to the three wise men from the Biblical story of Jesus' birth. The three traveled a great distance to bring valuable gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the new baby, and as O. Henry put it, "invented the art of giving Christmas presents."

In this story, Della sells her spectacular 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") to a wig maker to buy a chain for Jim's prized gold watch ("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"). Find more quotes from the story here.

Unbeknownst to Della, however, Jim sells his watch to buy her a set of prized hair combs. Each gave up their most valued possession to get a gift for the other.

Questions About 'The Gift of the Magi'

What is important about the title? Does it suggest that the story has a religious lesson or just that Christmas will figure into the plot somehow?

What are some central ideas, or themes, to the story?

What are some conflicts in the story? Are they internal or external?

List a metaphor or comparison in the story? Explain it.

Why do we spend so much time getting to know Della in the story, while Jim is introduced only near the very end? Is her perspective more or less important than his?

Some of the language and phrasing O. Henry uses in "The Gift of the Magi" seems a bit outdated, particularly descriptions of Della and references to salary and how much things cost in 1905. How could the story be updated to be more contemporary, without losing its central lessons of love and sacrifice?

What are some symbols in "The Gift of the Magi"? Is it telling that Jim gives up something material that can't be reclaimed, while Della gives up something physical that will regrow?

Relate a symbol to a central idea or theme of the story.

Does the story end the way you expected? Did you find it endearing that the two gave up their possessions for each other, or were you exasperated that neither could enjoy the other's gift?

How does this short story compare with other works in holiday literature? Is it similar to the lessons in works such as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"?

How essential is the setting, both the time and place, to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?

Questions to Ponder

Describe a time when you picked out the perfect gift for someone or someone picked out the perfect gift for you. Why was it perfect?

Describe a time when a gift didn't work out. What could have made the situation different? How was the situation handled?

Describe an ironic incident in your own life. What was actually expected to happen, and why was the actual event ironic?