The Gift of the Magi – Literary Analysis

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We are told that it is Christmas Eve, and can see from the description of the building that Jim and Della live in that it is a poor neighborhood. We know that the city is New York because Della had worshiped the combs in a Broadway window. The year is most likely somewhere between 1906 and when the story was written in 1910. The flat is old but has electric buttons in the entry area downstairs. Electricity first became widely available in New York City in the 1890s, suggesting that the story takes place sometime after 1900. Jim has just had a large cut in pay. The U.S. economy performed strongly from the late 1890s until 1906. It then suffered a major economic downturn, which lead to a financial crisis in 1907.


The main themes of the story are unquestionably Love, Sacrifice and Wisdom. Jim and Della show their love by giving up their most valued possession to buy each other something special for Christmas. At the end of the story, the narrator refers to them as both unwise and the wisest. They are unwise because it is not necessary to give expensive gifts when you are so much in love; they are the wisest because they thought only of the other person and not of themselves when they bought their gifts.

There are several possible minor themes in the story, which may or may not have been in Porter’s mind as he wrote. These are:

  • Beauty: Della is worried that Jim won’t think she is beautiful with short hair. She thinks she looks like a truant schoolboy and that, even worse, Jim will think she looks like a Coney Island chorus girl. The reference to Coney Island is important here. Coney Island was a notorious at the time, and chorus girls were expected to come down into the hall and “sit” with men after performing. Jim, of course, proves Della wrong. Interestingly, we aren’t told what Jim thinks of her new look. After he gets over the shock, all he says about it is: I don’t think there’s anything… that could make me like my girl any less. The message here is that if you really love somebody, they are beautiful to you no matter how they look.
  • Giving: Della and Jim both feel that it is important to give nice gifts to each other to express their love. In the last paragraph the narrator calls them two foolish children because of this, as it should not be necessary to buy expensive gifts to prove your love. We learn enough of Della’s character to see that she would have been very happy with anything that Jim gave her. I think we can also safely conclude that Jim would have been happy with the pair of gloves we are told that he needed… and which Della probably could have bought with her $1.87!
  • Value: Sometimes the things that we hold dear are worth a lot more to us than their commercial value. Della must have been growing her hair for many years. It was her pride and joy. However to Madame Sofronie, it was just “hair”… worth no more than one month of Jim’s wages. Jim’s gold watch was his only family heirloom, handed down to him from from his grandfather and father. We don’t know how much he got when he sold it, but it was probably much less than its sentimental value.


The story is told from the limited point of view. The narrator tells us Della’s thoughts, but no one else’s. As well as relating the story of Jim and Della, he/she also shares some personal views: Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

The tone of the narrator towards Bella and Jim is understanding and sympathetic. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. …Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two – and to be burdened with a family!.

The tone of the narrator towards the reader is playful and philosophical: For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. 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.

Characters and

  • s: Della: determined, devoted, emotional, excitable, impulsive, loving, selfless, warm Jim: devoted, proud, reliable, selfless, serious
  • : This is an unusual story in that the antagonist is not a central character. Rather, it is a state of being: poverty.
  • Minor Character(s): Madame Sofronie: cold, professional
  • Internal Conflict: Jim and Della’s decisions about whether to sell their most prized possessions.
  • External Conflict: Jim and Della’s struggle against poverty.


  • : Della at home thinking about Christmas. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Mood: Sad and Hopeless
  • : 1. Della’s decision to sell her hair. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street. Mood: Hopeful. 2. Della shopping for Jim’s gift. The next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Mood: Joyous 3. Della at home waiting for Jim. If Jim doesn’t kill me… he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. Mood: Nervous 4. Jim comes home and sees Della’s hair. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that… terrified her. Mood: Suspenseful
  • : Jim hugs Della. Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. Mood: Loving
  • : Jim gives Della the combs. She hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile. Mood: Warm:
  • : Jim tells Della about selling the watch. Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled. Mood: Amused and Happy

Examples of s

  • : 1. sudden serious sweetness 2. sobs, sniffles, and smiles
  • : The references to the King and Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the story.
  • ing: Now, there were two possessions… 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.
  • : Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he (King Solomon) passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
  • : Della looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.
  • : The exchange of the precious gifts that could not be used. (Situational)
  • : 1. Della saved money by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher. 2. The comparison between Jim and Della and the Magi.
  • : 1. Her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. 2. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent soul.
  • : Della’s hair fell around her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.

In literature, the time(s) and place(s) in which a story happens.

(n: theme pl themes) In literature, a central idea that is communicated in a story. Note that a theme may be an idea that the writer wishes to convey, or another idea that a reader or group of readers interpret into the story. Most themes are implied through the plot rather than stated directly. (หัวข้อ) 4000

(n: red light district) A neighborhood where prostitution and other businesses related to sex are common.

(n: point of view) A way of looking at or thinking about something; viewpoint. Even if you disagree with her, you should try to see things from her point of view.
In literature, the position of the storyteller (narrator) in relation to the story being told. The two most common points of view in short stories are 'first person' [where the narrator is a character in the story] and 'third person' [where the narrator is not part of the story].

(n: tone, pl tones) In literature, the attitude or feeling of a writer toward a subject or an audience. It is generally expressed through the writer's choice of words. The tone can be formal, informal, serious, humorous, sarcastic, bitter, sad, cheerful, pessimistic, optimistic, or any other attitude or feeling.

(n: third person) In literature, a writing style where a story is told by someone who is not a character, using 'he', 'she', 'it' and 'they' as subject pronouns when describing what characters do. The writer may choose for the knowledge of the third person to be limited (in which the reader enters the mind of only one character at a time) or omniscient (all-knowing, where the thoughts of every character are open to the reader).

(n: conflict pl conflicts) A struggle or state of opposition between persons, ideas, forces or emotions. 2000

In literature, there are four main types of conflict:

  • Internal conflicts, where a character experiences two opposite emotions or desires (Man vs Self); and
  • External conflicts, where a character is set against another character (Man vs Man), the views of society (Man vs Society), or the forces of nature (Man vs Nature)

(n: protagonist pl protagonists) The main character in a story, play, movie, etc. whose conflict starts the plot in motion. Often but not always the hero or "good guy". 12000

(n: antagonist pl antagonists) The character or force with which the main character in a story is in conflict. Often but not always the villain or "bad guy".

(n: dramatic structure) In literature, the classification of dramatic works into stages.

In literature, the atmosphere of a piece of writing; the emotions or feelings that a selection causes in the mind of a reader.

(n: exposition pl expositions) 1. The act of explaining something; a clear explanation. 2. [abbr. expo] A public show or exhibition. 11000
In literature, the part of a story where the characters are introduced and the plot begins to develop; usually at the beginning of a story.

(n: rising action) In literature, the part of a story where the conflict or conflicts develop and the characters try to resolve them; usually associated with building suspense.

(n: climax pl climaxes) The most interesting and exciting part of something; the high point. The climax of a career/movie/play/tournament. 7000
In literature, the most important point in a story where the action reaches a turning point and interest and excitement reach their peak. It usually occurs at or near the end and influences the final outcome of the story.

(n: falling action) In literature, the point after the climax where the action begins to drop off and the events of the plot may be explained or become clearer.

(n: denouement pl denouements) The final part of something such as a book, a play, or a series of events.
In literature, the part of the story where loose ends are tied up and the final situation becomes clear; also called Resolution.

In literature, a method used to express meaning through the use of special forms of language. Most authors don't simply come out and say things plainly in their works. They use literary techniques to communicate meaning in different ways and make their stories or poems more interesting.

In literature, the use of words that begin with the same sound near one another. The wild and woolly walrus waits and wonders when we'll walk by.

(n: allusion pl allusions) A statement that refers to something without mentioning it directly. She made an allusion to her first marriage, but said nothing more about it. 11000
In literature, a reference to a historical event, person, or another work of literature, often used to deepen the meaning of the story.

(v: foreshadow, foreshadows, foreshadowed, foreshadowing) To give a suggestion of something that has not yet happened. 14000
A literary technique where an author puts something in a story about events that will come later in the plot.

(n: hyperbole pl hyperboles) A literary technique where something is described as being bigger, better or more important [or smaller, worse or less important] than it really is in order to stress a point or create a strong feeling. 12000

(n: imagery, noncount) Language where mental images of a scene are created using descriptive words, especially making use of the human senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Used to create a sense of the atmosphere, emotions or feelings of a situation. 2000

  • Verbal Irony: The use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think, especially in order to be funny. “What a beautiful view,” he said, as he looked out the window at the wall of the building opposite. The use of verbal irony to achieve a positive change or outcome is called satire. The use of verbal irony to insult or hurt someone or something is called sarcasm.
  • 2.Situational Irony: A situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected. He worried so much about his health that he made himself sick.
  • Dramatic Irony A situation in a movie, book, play, etc. where the audience knows something that the characters in the story are not aware of. One of the best examples of this is where, in Romeo & Juliet, Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead whereas the audience knows that she is only sleeping.

(n: metaphor pl metaphors) A comparison between two unlike things that share similar qualities. A word or phrase for one is used to refer to the other in order to show or suggest that they are similar. The comparison is indirect in that it does not use the words "like" or "as". He was drowning in paperwork. He's a tiger when he's angry. 7000

(n: personification, noncount) In literature, giving human-like qualities to animals, objects or ideas. Lightning danced across the sky. Time flies and waits for no one. 11000

(n: simile pl similes) A direct comparison between two different things, showing similarities with the help of the words “like” or “as”. 13000