What Are the Symbols in "The Gift of the Magi?"

"The Gift of the Magi" is a short story written by William Sydney Porter -- otherwise known as "O. Henry." In this sweet tale, a young married couple doesn't have much money to buy each other Christmas gifts, so they have to get creative -- and sacrifice a lot. The husband sells his grandfather's gold watch to buy combs for his wife's beautiful hair. The wife has her hair cut off and sold to make a wig; she buys her husband a watch chain with the money.


The gold of the watch may symbolize several things: love, purity, money (which the couple lacks), and eternity (gold does not rust or tarnish). Some interpreters believe that because it is a Christmas story, the gold in this tale symbolizes divinity, such as Jesus or God himself.


The watch in the story can represent time, the future (which the couple hopes to spend together), the end of the year, or eternity. It may represent the couple's transition from starry-eyed youths to mature and generous individuals.


The young wife's hair in the story can symbolize many things: youth (young women generally wear their hair longer), vitality and sexuality. In a way, by giving up her hair, the woman in the story is agreeing to give her youth, sexuality, and "best years of her life" to her husband.


The combs are a symbol of the young husband's love for his wife, as he gave up his most precious possession so that his wife would be happy and beautifully adorned. Since grooming and arranging hair is such an intimate act, the combs may also be subtly symbolic of the sexual attraction between husband and wife.


Like the combs, the watch chain is a symbol of the wife's love for her husband. She has just as much emotional attachment to her hair as he did to his watch. Yet she gave it up willingly to purchase the one thing she thought would bring her husband happiness. The chain may also symbolize their marriage, an institution that provides a "link" between two people.


Since the story takes place at Christmastime, the season can be said to represent the original Magi, who were wise men who visited the Baby Jesus. Reports differ as to whether they were actually present at the birth, or arrived afterwards. Regardless, sources generally agree that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh -- valuable items in the ancient world.

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