Gift of the Magi Literary Terms

, M.Ed. English Education
Updated March 27, 2020
YourDictionary logo
    Logo of YourDictionary with blue corners

This synopsis of Gift of the Magi literary terms includes the terms referenced directly from the short story. This well known story, created by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) and first published in 1906, shows the selfishness or foolishness of a young couple at Christmas time. Eager to please the other with a spectacular gift, they sell their most prized possessions to have enough money to purchase the other a gift. She sells her hair to buy him a watch fob; he sells his watch to buy her tortoise shell hair combs.

Understanding the Gift of the Magi Literary Terms

Narrator: The story is told in the third person point of view through a mostly omniscient narrator.

Setting: The story takes place in New York City. While the setting is not exactly stated, the author infers this setting by mentioning Coney Island, a well known area landmark.

Theme: The central idea in this story is the love between Delia and James and the sacrifices that they make to please the other.


  • Delia Young: A young woman married to James. She sells her long hair to buy her husband a watch fob.
  • James Dillingham Young: A young man (twenty-two years old) married to Delia. He sells his watch for the money to buy his wife hair combs.
  • Madame Sofronie: The woman at the hair shop who buys Delia's hair for twenty dollars

Climax: The most exciting part of the story is when the characters exchange gifts. Everything in the story leads up to that particular moment.

Resolution: The story wraps up quickly after the climax when the characters realize what they have sacrificed for each other.

Repetition: The number three figures prominently throughout the story. Parts of the dialogue, events, characters, and other elements all come in threes. Some examples include:

  • Three characters (Delia, James, Madame Sofronie) with three very valuable items (hair, watch, love)
  • Three magi (Balthasar, Melchior, Gaspar) from three different kingdoms (Arabia, Persia, India) who offered three gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh)
  • Counting money three times
  • Color grey mentioned three times
  • Alliteration that comes in threes: sobs, sniffles, smiles; sudden serious sweetness
  • Allusion to the Queen of Sheba known for giving three gifts to King Solomon

Irony: One type of irony can be seen in this story, situational irony. By selling their most prized possessions to buy something for the other, they wind up selling that which they need to use the gifts the other has given.


  • Biblical Imagery: Three wise men, Queen of Sheba, King Solomon. All of these characters were financially rich in the Bible, which directly contrasts that of Delia and Jim's financial poverty. The juxtaposition most likely is meant to show that the love Delia and Jim have for each other defines the real meaning of rich.
  • Color Imagery: The grey and colorless setting directly contrasts the Christmas time of year when everything should be sparkling and brightly colored in holiday decorations.

Why Study Literature?

Many students have a difficult time analyzing literature, especially short pieces. These Gift of the Magi literary terms are meant to help readers delve deeper into the story to gain alternate perspectives of the events. A careful reading of any story will yield similar results. Literary analysis remains an important part of the curriculum for a variety of reasons. For one, it helps us understand our world and the world around us, especially different places and times. Yet many stories, such as the Gift of the Magi, endure because of their timelessness.