The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
In The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry we have the theme of poverty, frustration, connection, struggle, love, sacrifice, anxiety and commitment. Set in New York at the turn of the twentieth century the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Henry may be exploring the theme of poverty or hardship. By telling the reader exactly how much money Della has ($1.87) Henry may be placing an emphasis on the levels of poverty that exist in Della and Jim’s life. The fact that the majority of the $1.87 is made up of pennies also suggests that things may not change financially for Della or Jim. Their financial struggles will continue. Something that is a little clearer to the reader when we discover that it has taken Della several months to save the money. It may also be a case that by having Della count the money three times Henry is further emphasizing the levels of poverty that exist for Della and Jim. It also suggests that Della is frustrated, something that becomes clearer to the reader later on in the story. By counting the money on several occasions it is as if Della is hoping that she has more than she actually has. How frustrated Della may be is also noticeable by the fact that she wants to (and does) ‘flop down on the shabby little couch and howl.’
Henry also appears to be using the setting to highlight Della’s mood. We are introduced to the ‘grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard.’ This line may be important as by using the word ‘grey’ on three separate occasions in the one sentence Henry may be attempting to suggest just how unhappy Della is. Though it is Christmas Eve and the reader would expect a person to be happy this is not the case for Della. She is only too aware that she does not have enough money to buy Jim a Christmas present. It may also be important that Della wears a brown jacket and an old brown hat. Again brown like grey would be a dull colour and Henry may be highlighting again not only Della’s mood but how unhappy she is. Just as grey and brown would be considered to be dull colours which lack any brightness. Henry may be similarly suggesting that Della’s life also lacks any brightness (or happiness).
Henry also seems to be exploring the theme of sacrifice. By selling her hair Della is giving something of herself in order to be able to buy something for Jim. Similarly Jim by selling his watch is also giving something of his own in order to be able to give Della a Christmas present. Both characters are acting selflessly. Thinking not of themselves but about somebody else. Which would suggest or highlight just how deeply in love Della and Jim are despite their financial position. Materialistically neither Della nor Jim could be considered wealthy but their real wealth is their love for each other. A love that is noticeable through Henry’s use of certain words throughout the story. He uses words like ‘greatly hugged’ and ‘darling’ when Della thinks about Jim. It is also interesting that Della tells Jim ‘maybe the hairs on my head were numbered but nobody could ever count my love for you.’ This line may be important as not only does it suggest that Della is in love with Jim but it suggests that she is committed to him too. Jim’s response to Della is also interesting ‘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.’ This line may also be important as it suggests that Jim, like Della is committed to the relationship.
The theme of anxiety is also self-evident in the story. It is noticeable at the beginning of the story when Della is counting the money. Such is her anxiety (and poverty) that she counts the money on three separate occasions. Also when Jim first sees Della’s hair there is a sense of anxiousness for Della. She is concerned that Jim won’t like her any more because she has cut her hair. Though the reader soon becomes aware that the length of Della’s hair does not concern Jim. Della also puts herself under a lot of pressure in order to get Jim the chain for his watch. This pressure is most likely caused by her own anxiety in trying to show Jim how much she loves him despite the lack of money.
The end of the story is also interesting as Henry appears to be introducing irony into the story. The reader is already aware that for Della there were two treasures in her life that nobody else could take away from her and Jim. First was her hair and second was Jim’s watch which was his father’s and his grandfather’s before him. Yet Della bought a chain for Jim’s watch and Jim sold his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair. Though some critics might suggest that both gifts are now of no use the point that Henry may be making is that the real gift that both Della and Jim have given each other is the sacrifice that they have made despite being so poor. Both characters gave something that was personally important to them to bring happiness to the other. Rather than either character being upset Henry manages to bring both characters even closer to each other. Della holds the combs close to her bosom such is her appreciation of them and Jim can see the humorous side of what has happened. Despite having no money Della and Jim have something else. They have a strong connection and love for each other. Something that money can’t buy.