There's not a whole lot of imagery or metaphor in this story. That makes the few Bible allusions stand out all the more. There's the whole "magi" reference. The last paragraph compares Jim and Della to the three wise men who, according to the Christian New Testament, delivered gifts to Jesus on the first Christmas (see "What's Up with The Title?" for more on this comparison).
In addition, there are two other Biblical allusions, both made in connection with Jim and Della's prize possessions. Della's hair is said to be so gorgeous that it would inspire envy in the Queen of Sheba. Jim's watch would have been the envy of King Solomon. Both the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon are famous figures from the Old Testament.
What do all three of these references have in common, besides being Biblical figures? Well, they're all royal, very rich Biblical figures. The magi are often said to be kings, and brought Jesus three very expensive gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), while Sheba and Solomon were both powerful monarchs renowned for their wealth and splendor. The comparison of Jim and Della's possessions to those of Biblical figures helps bring out how precious those two items are to their owners; to Jim and Della they'retreasures, which they give away. But that's not all the images of Solomon and Sheba do. By bringing them up, and by mentioning the magi, O. Henry creates a sharp contrast between their spectacular riches and the obvious poverty and Jim and Della.
We have to wonder why O. Henry would do that. Because ultimately the story wants us to think about what it means to be truly rich. Where it really counts, Jim and Della are as rich as Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and the magi, because they love each other. Just like the magi and Solomon (both figures famous for their wisdom), they're also wise, as the last paragraph tells us.
The Biblical imagery also beefs up the story's credibility as a parable. By invoking the Bible at moments, O. Henry makes "Gift of the Magi" feel more morally weighty.
A drab flat in a gray city on Christmas Eve
The narrator calls our attention almost immediately to the two most important details of the story's setting: it takes place on a Christmas Eve, and its two main characters live in a very unassuming flat. The action of the story depends on the fact that Christmas is sufficiently close that Della needs to buy a present now, even with her small amount of money. The couple's very humble abode brings out their poverty vividly. It's their poverty which both forces them to make the sacrifices they do, and which makes those sacrifices meaningful. O. Henry sketches the flat with just enough detail to convey an image of its squalor: it's cheap, sparsely furnished, and has a broken mailbox and a broken doorbell.
The drabness of the physical setting in which Jim and Della live creates a contrast with the warmth and richness of their love for each other. The fact that everythingoutside the flat is "grey" – Della watches a "gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard" (6) – develops the contrast even further. Inside, we get the sense, Jim and Della's affection creates a welcoming love nest, in spite of the flat's humble nature. Outside, it's a cold, gray world, and one that is about as uncaring as Madame Sofronie.
As for the larger "where and when," we don't have much in the way of specifics. It is possible the story is set in a city – "flats" are the kind of thing you often associate with cities – but not necessarily so (the flat has a backyard, which is a little less urban). From the "gas" which Della lights (20) and the gadgets she has (i.e., a stove and curling irons), it is a safe bet that the story is set just about the time O. Henry wrote it (first decade of the 20th century), or slightly earlier.
Third Person (Omniscient)
Technically, the story seems to be third person limited omniscient. It's told in the third-person, and only follows Della. We don't see what Jim is doing during the story, and once he does show up, he remains closed to us: we don't know what his reaction to Della's hair is any more than Della does.
We can't be entirely satisfied with this classification, though, because the narrator has such an independent personality and seems to know a lot more than Della does at times. He's "The Storyteller." It's as if he sees everything, but usually limits himself to Della's point of view by choice for storytelling purposes. If the narrator described everything that were going on, he'd ruin the surprise ending.
We know the narrator is really more like an omniscient being, though, because every so often he "zooms out" to make much more general pronouncements that fly way above the action of the story's characters. The most obvious of these is at the end, when he mentions "the magi" (to which Della and Jim are totally oblivious). But there are other places too, like when he zooms out from the weeping Della to describe the flat. There are also all those moments when he makes a more universal remark about "the way life is," such as, "Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating" (2).
The key feature of a parable is that it uses a situation, which feels very simple to make a more complex or general point, often a moral one. (Also, unlike a fable, a parable does this with people, not animals.) This classification defines "The Gift of the Magi," which is a remarkably simple story. It boils down to a few bare essentials: Della and Jim are poor, but love each other very much; they each want to buy the perfect Christmas gift for each other; they each have one prized possession which they give up to buy the other a present, and the presents they buy are meant for the prized possessions they've sacrificed. You don't need to know almost anything else about the story to "get it," and there's very little in the story itself that doesn't serve to develop one of those elements.
That there is actually something specific to get is the other reason "The Gift of the Magi" is a parable: it has a point, and yes, it is a moral one. This story is about what it means to give a gift. All of the elements of the story serve to bring that point across. And yes, the slightly "preachy" tone of the story is part of the parable. That last paragraph especially, which is just a slightly more stylish version of the "moral" that predictably comes at the end of an Aesop fable.
Oral, Simple, Informal (and spun together from incomplete sentences)
The story is narrated as if someone were telling it to you aloud. How does O. Henry achieve this effect? Basically he breaks grammar rules. There are lots of sentences that aren't really sentences, like the opening one: "One dollar and eighty-seven cents" (1). There's no verb or action in that sentence; it just states a sum of money. We need more information about what that sum of money "means" or "does" in order to understand the sentence. We get that information in the next sentence: "That was all" (1). Although the second sentence at least has a verb, it's also technically not a complete sentence: the subject, "that," is unspecified, and only makes sense given the previous sentence.
Likewise, the narrator is fond of starting sentences with words that grammar sticklers would say you're not supposed to start with, like "And" or "Which." This also has the effect of making one sentence hinge on the sentence before. (And if you look, you'll notice that Shmoop does this sometimes too – it's part of what makes us and O. Henry sound conversational.)
Looking at those first two sentences clues us in on how the story's style tends to operate as a whole: lots of short sentences that often depend on other sentences in order to work. This technique has a way of weaving together the story across individual sentences and gives it a flow that would be broken apart by writing in more complete, self-contained sentences. It's typical of the ways we tell stories when wespeak. This style keeps listeners hanging on from one sentence to the next. It also prevents them from getting lost in overly long sentences. Since when you're listening to a story you can't go back and read a sentence again, it's important that you don't get lost. If you get caught on a particular sentence it might make you lose the thread of the whole story.
Of course, as O. Henry is trying to capture that feel of telling a story orally, he also throws in plenty of addresses to his audience of listeners, as in, "Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends – a mammoth task" (20). This further creates the feeling that he is talking directly to us.
O. Henry is known for his "twist endings," and the ending of "The Gift of the Magi" is probably the most famous of them all. At the end of the story Della cuts and sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, and Jim sells his watch to buy Della combs for her hair. Here we have a classic case of irony. The determination to find the perfect gift leads each character to make a sacrifice; that sacrifice makes each gift useless. The result is the exact opposite of what Jim and Della intended. What makes this ending so bittersweet is that it only comes about because they acted on their intentions: their gifts wouldn't have been useless if they hadn't given up their prize possessions. And since we follow only Della in the story, we don't know what has happened until the very end, during the exchange itself. It's the sudden, unexpected irony, which only strikes at the very end that makes the ending a twist.
Now that we've talked about what makes the ending a twist, let's ask another question: how do we feel about the ending? From one perspective, it's disastrous. Jim and Della seem much better off before the gift exchange. At the end, they have exchanged their most prized possessions to buy each other gifts that are now useless. Their original possessions – the watch and the hair – were valuable on their own. Not only that, their original possessions seem more precious because they weretheirs – Jim's watch was a family heirloom passed down from his granddad, and Della's hair was literally a part of Della. Their gifts, on the other hand, are just new store-bought things that have no special connection to either person. Since each person wanted to buy the other the perfect gift, this means they have both failed colossally.
But then there's the narrator's perspective in that last paragraph, according to which the gifts they've given each other are the "wisest" gifts of all, the "gifts of the magi." If we agree, then of course they've succeeded in what they wanted to do. Both Jim and Della have shown that they're willing to sacrifice the most valuable thing they have to give something to the other. That makes their "useless" gifts incredibly valuable after all: the selfless love each feels for the other is embodied in those gifts. As long as they have the gifts, they'll be able to remember it. That kind of thing can't be bought. And it makes the gifts even more special and personal than what they replaced.
Which leads us to another point. Before the exchange, Jim and Della each had one prize possession. Each possession was valuable on its own and belonged to each person individually. The watch was Jim's, and the hair was Della's. Both possessions are sacrificed. In the exchange, each gains something new, which doesn't have any sentimental value as a token of their love for each other. That love isn't something they have as individuals, it's something they share together. So in the gift exchange, the two of them come closer together in a very concrete way.
Yes, endings can't get much sappier than this. But just admit it. Don't you love it anyway?