Metaphors are comparisons used effortlessly in everyday life, such as likening a fever to a fire by saying "My head is burning." Authors purposely craft metaphors to shape reader understanding of characters and stories. The title of O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi" reflects its central metaphor, which compares a young couple's selfless love to the generosity of the Biblical wise men -- magi -- who gave baby Jesus gifts.
Author and Story Summary
O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who died in 1910. His stories were renowned for surprise endings, such as the ironic conclusion of "The Gift of the Magi," which was first published in 1905 by a New York newspaper. The story concerns a wife and husband who secretly sacrifice their favorite possessions to purchase Christmas gifts for each other. Della, the wife, sells her long hair, which is more valuable to her than jewels, so she can buy an expensive watch fob for Jim. His single fine possession is his grandfather's gold pocket watch. As the story closes, Jim tells Della that he sold the watch to purchase a gift for her -- jeweled hair combs.
Definition of a Metaphor
Metaphors use one object or concept to explain another. In "The Gift of the Magi," the narrator compares slender Della to a bulldozer. Although she only has $1.87 with which to buy a Christmas gift for her husband, the narrator says she saved it a penny at a time by "bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher." The bulldozer image is a metaphor for the strength of Della's determination. Later, using another literary device called a simile -- a comparison including the word "like" or "as" -- the narrator adds to this image of power by likening the beauty of her hair to a turbulent river "rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters."
The central metaphor of O. Henry's story alludes to the wealthy wise men, or magi, who delivered rare gifts to baby Jesus in Matthew 2:1-18 of the Bible's New Testament. No wise men visit Della and Jim. O. Henry ends his story with the metaphor, "They are the magi," in reference to Della and Jim. He precedes this statement by calling them "foolish children" whose sacrifices were both unwise and yet the wisest of all. The narrator thinks Della and Jim are the greatest gift-givers of all time, because their love has caused them to give unselfishly and at great cost. This metaphor underlines the story's theme that love is the best gift of all.
One confusing metaphor in "The Gift of the Magi" contains conflicting images. After Della sells her hair, she is happy while shopping for Jim's gift. The narrator says, "The next two hours tripped by on rosy wings," then jokingly adds, "never mind the hashed metaphor," because birds use their wings to fly, not skip. Authors normally avoid mixed metaphors. The narrator's joke may have been based on O. Henry's need to meet a deadline -- "The Atlantic Monthly" notes that he reportedly wrote the story in less than two hours.