What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’

I don’t think this story is really for children.

Photo credit: Katherine Johnson, CC BY 2.0.

First of all, I don’t think “The Gift of the Magi” is a children’s story. I first read it as a child, because it was part of an illustrated holiday anthology that also included Miracle on 34th Street (which I loved) and A Child’s Christmas in Wales (which went way over my head as a kid, even though it was ostensibly about children).

I later read “The Gift of the Magi” in a high school literature class, which seems to imply that it’s intended for young audiences, except—as is made obvious on an adult re-read—it’s not. It’s erudite, in every definition of the word. It’s sly. It breaks the fourth wall and asks the reader to slip in and out of various points of view.

It also contains a good deal of adult information that children just don’t understand. Sure, they get the part about Della selling her hair to buy Jim a watch, and Jim selling his watch to buy Della hair combs. They get the metaphor at the end, where O. Henry says that this young couple’s gifts are of greater value than the gold/frankincense/myrrh that the Magi presented to the Christ Child.

If they’re certain types of children, they pick up on the idea that being a good person involves sacrifice, sometimes sacrificing the most valuable thing you have, and that’s probably the biggest reason why “The Gift of the Magi” should not be a children’s story.

Let’s start with an overview of the numbers:

Mr. James Dillingham Young used to earn $30 per week, although his income has been cut to $20 per week for reasons unstated. “The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905; the Bureau of Labor Services inflation calculator I use for these kinds of things doesn’t go back that far, but if you use the first date the BLS makes available, you learn that $20 in 1913 equals $488.34 in today’s dollars.

So this young couple was never doing particularly well, and they recently lost 25 percent of their income.

Their flat costs $8 per week, or 40 percent of their income. It’s a furnished flat, which might have saved them some money, but they are paying much more on rent than any smart financial adviser would recommend.

Della Young—and you had better believe that surname is deliberate—has been saving every penny “by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied” (and after reading that sentence why does anyone think this story is for children) but she only has $1.87 left to spend on Christmas.

At this point you know the rest. Della sells her hair for $20—the equivalent of one week’s income, which is another hint at just how badly off these Youngs are—and buys a watch chain for $21, leaving her with 87 cents to get the Youngs through… the end of the week? The end of the month? Just how poorly-thought-out was this plan?

Meanwhile, Jim sells the gold watch that once belonged to his grandfather for an undisclosed sum and buys “beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims.”

If you call this couple “the Youngs” and take its meaning literally, you can rattle off a whole list of criticisms that have been applied to young people since at least 1905:

The Youngs are spending too much on rent.

The Youngs are spending too much on frivolous items.

The Youngs don’t value their family heirlooms.

The Youngs get weird haircuts.

The Youngs do stuff that we older people would not do, so let’s criticize them for it.

If it weren’t for O. Henry’s paragraph at the end where he compares the Youngs to the Magi, you’d assume that he was writing a comic story about two young people behaving like fools, and in fact he says as much:

The magi, as you know, were wise men — wonderfully wise men — who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

But he respects the Youngs. He pokes fun at their financial situation but also acknowledges its reality. He gives their “unwise sacrifice” dignity.

There’s one sentence in the story that can be interpreted in a few different ways, and I’m curious to see what you think:

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two — and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

In many cases, the word “family” implies a household with both adults and children. (It shouldn’t, there are all kinds of families, but we all know what kind of a world we live in.)

It is pretty obvious that the Youngs do not yet have children. Will they soon? O. Henry does not specifically describe Della Young as pregnant, but she could be. Maybe. Why does he use “burdened with a family” instead of “head of a household” or “newly married, making one income support two” or any of the other ways he could have described the Youngs?

That sentence also makes me wonder about the rest of the Youngs’ family. They don’t seem to be preparing to spend time with parents or grandparents on Christmas. Are they both orphaned? Did they move far away from all of their extended family? Was it a “whoops we got pregnant let’s get married quickly and oh by the way neither of our families are speaking to us” situation?

Of course, it’s privileged to imagine that every young couple has parents and extended family who can help them out during the holiday season, even to the point of offering a few presents and a big meal.

And maybe O. Henry didn’t address it because he wanted to maintain an economy of characters.

But it’s still interesting to consider.

There was a part of me, as a kid, that thought but why didn’t they just talk to each other, this whole situation could have been avoided with a little communication, and if I were going to take one financial lesson away from this piece as an adult, it would be the communication lesson much more than the sacrifice lesson.

Because they didn’t have to give up the most valuable things they owned, and they shouldn’t have sold their heirloom watch and/or parts of their body without discussing it with each other, and I will stand by that statement even though I understand O. Henry’s comments on wisdom and giving ourselves to Christ and all of that.

That’s what this story teaches me about money.

What about you?


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