Michael J. Cummings...©
the day before Christmas, Della has only $1.87 in savings with which to
buy a gift for her husband, James Dillingham Young. Flopping down on the
couch of their apartment, she crieshowls,
had squeezed every spare penny out of household expenses, and still there
was not enough for the wonderful present she dreamed of getting for Jim.
Times are tough. Jims salary, formerly $30 a week, is now only $20 a week.
Della gets an idea. Whirling about the room, she lets down her hair. It
is one of two prized possessions between her and Jim, the other being the
gold pocket watch handed down to him from his father. A moment later, Della
goes down the street to Madame Sofronies shop, where the sign reads Hair
Goods of All Kinds. There, Della sells her hair for $20.
shopping for two hours, she finds just the right gift, a platinum fob chain
to replace the old leather strap attached to his watch. It is simple and
elegant, and it costs $21, leaving Della 87 cents. After returning home,
she uses curling irons to give herself a new hairdo, puts coffee on, gets
pork chops ready for frying, then prays that Jim will like her new look.
It is seven oclock. When he walks in, he stares at her. His gaze is long
and unrelenting. Worried that he is displeased with her appearance, Della
tells him that she sold her hair because I couldn't have lived through
Christmas without giving you a present. Jim seems bewildered.
cut off your hair?
it off and sold it," Della says.
say your hair is gone?
moment later, he comes out of his trance and enfolds Della in his arms.
Then he takes a package from his overcoat and tosses it onto a table. He
tells his wife nothing she could do would make him love her any less. However,
he adds, the package will explain why he reacted strangely upon seeing
her. After opening the present, she cries out with joy, then bursts into
tears. Her gift is a set of expensive, turtoise-shell combs she had long
eyed in a shop window. To comfort him, she says, My hair grows so fast,
Della gives him his present. As the reader by now suspects and as the story
confirms, Jim had sold his pocket watch to buy the combs.
like the three wise men of long ago, Della and Jim had given perfect gifts.
After all, the narrator says, they sacrificed for each other the greatest
treasures of their house. What they gave as presents was worth far more
than the chain and the combs.
action takes place in New York City in a very modest apartment and in a
hair shop down the street from the apartment. Although Porter does not
mention New York by name, he does refer to Coney Island, the city's most
famous amusement park, located in the borough of Brooklyn. Porter lived
in New York when he wrote and published the "The Gift of the Magi."
Della Young: Pretty
young woman who cuts off her beautiful long hair and sells it to buy a
Christmas gift for her husband.
Work and Year of Publication
James Dillingham Young:Husband
of Della. He sells his gold watch to buy a gift for Della.
Shop owner who buys Della's hair. .
Gift of the Magi is a short story, one of several hundred written by O.
Henry between 1903 and 1910. It was published in a New York City newspaper
in 1905 and in a collection, The Four Million, in 1906.
Magi were the so-called three wise men from the east who traveled to Bethlehem,
following a bright star, to present gifts to the infant Jesus. The term
magi (singular, magus) comes from the Greek word magoi, a rendering of
a Persian word for members of a priestly caste. The Gospel of Matthew (Chapter
2, Verse 11) says: "And entering into the house, they found the child
with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him: and opening their
treasures, they offered him giftsgold, frankincense,
offerings, though valuable, were not as important as the recognition, respect,
and love they gave the Christ child. Frankincense was used as a treatment
for illness and as an fragrant additive to incense. Myrrh was also added
to incense, as well as perfume, and found additional use as an ointment.
The three wise men have been identified in western tradition as Balthasar,
king of Arabia; Melchior, king of Persia; and Gaspar, king of India.
A Magic Number
In "The Gift of the Magi,"
the number three figures prominently. Consider the following:
The story has three characters:
Della, Jim, and Madame Sophronie.
Della counts her money three
times (Paragraph 1).
The narrator says that "Life
is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles (Paragraph
The story refers three times
to the Youngs' supper entree: chops.
The story mentions the Queen
of Sheba, who gave three types of gifts to King Solomon: spices, gold,
A sentence in paragraph 5 says,
"She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking
a grey fence in a grey backyard.
Jim tells Della, I don't think
there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a
that could make me like my girl any less.
The narrator alliteratively
describes Della as speaking with "sudden serious sweetness."
The were three magi: Balthasar,
Melchior, and Gaspar.
The magi offered three gifts:
gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
According to tradition, the
magi were kings of Arabia, Persia, and India.
The story centers on three valuables:
Jim's gold watch, Della's hair, and the love Jim and Della share.
and Jim give each other the best of all possible gifts, love. It does not
matter that Jim no longer has the gold watch to display on the elegant
chain that Della gave him. Nor does it matter that Della no longer has
long, luxurious hair to comb with the gift Jim gave her. What matters is
that they have is each other.
climax occurs when Della and Jim open their gifts.
Questions and Essay Topics
An implied paradox in the story
is that Della and Jim Young are both poor and richpoor
in material things but rich in love. Explain how a related figure of speech,
irony, plays a role in the story.
Sudden serious sweetness is
an example of alliteration in the story. An example of a simile is Jim
stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail.
Write an essay focusing on Porters use of figures of speech to enhance
Several passages in the story
gives subtle clues about the kind of person Jim is. Identify at least three
passages and explain what they tell the reader about him.
Comment on the meaning of the
following sentence in the fifth paragraph of the story: She stood by the
window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey
Porter refers to the Queen of
Sheba and King Solomon in Paragraph 8. Who were they?
Three times in the story, the
narrator mentions the chops that the Youngs will be having for dinner.
Are the chops significant in any way?
In the first decade of the 20th
Century, Porter was among the most popular writers in the U.S. After reading
The Gift of the Magi and several other stories by Porter, write an essay
that explains why so many Americans read his stories. You might consider
the role of the following in his stories: coincidences and surprises, the
background of his characters, romance, humor, the structure of his plots,
and his ability to capture the mood of a particular time and place.
Sydney Porter, or O. Henry, wrote mostly about ordinary people going about
the daily adventure of living. Not infrequently, his stories involve coincidences
or unexpected twists that result in surprise endings like that in The
Gift of the Magi. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked in a drugstore,
on ranch, in a bank, and on newspaper staff. When he was in his early twenties,
he published a weekly humor magazine, The Rolling Stone, which failed.
He then took a job with the Houston Post newspaper. However, a past
misdeed, embezzlement of bank funds, caught up with him. To escape punishment,
he fled to Honduras. When his wife, Athol Estes Porter, became terminally
ill, he returned to the U.S. to be with her. After her death, he spent
more than three years in prison in Columbus, Ohio. There, he cultivated
his writing skills. After his release from prison, he became a professional
writer, settled in New York City, and became famous as under his pseudonym,
dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was
in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time 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. Three times
Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would
The Gift of the Magi
By O. Henry
was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and
howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life
is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to
the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It
did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the
lookout for the mendicancy squad.
the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and
an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also
appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham
Young." The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period
of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when
the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of "Dillingham" looked blurred,
as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming
D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat
above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young,
already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood
by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in
a grey backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87
with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could
for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses
had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to
buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning
for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterlingsomething
just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by
was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen
a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing
his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly
accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the
she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining
brilliantly, but her face had lost its colour within twenty seconds. Rapidly
she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they
both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's
and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the Queen of Sheba
lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang
out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels
and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled
up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed,
just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a
cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost
a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly.
Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed
on the worn red carpet.
went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts
and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the
door and down the stairs to the street.
she stopped the sign read: "Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One
flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too
white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."
you buy my hair?" asked Della.
buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the
looks of it."
rippled the brown cascade. "Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass
with a practised hand.
it to me quick," said Della.
and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor.
She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There
was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them
inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly
proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentationas
all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as
she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and
valuethe description applied to both. Twenty-one
dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents.
With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time
in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the
sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason.
She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing
the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous
task, dear friendsa mammoth task.
forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made
her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection
in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look
at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could
I dooh! what could I do with a dollar and
7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the
stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the
corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard
his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white
for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayers about
the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make
him think I am still pretty."
door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious.
Poor fellow, he was only twenty-twoand to
be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without
stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail.
His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that
she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise,
nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been
prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression
on his face.
wriggled off the table and went for him.
darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off
and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving
you a present. It'll grow out againyou won't
mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say 'Merry
Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nicewhat
a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at
that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow?
I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"
looked about the room curiously.
say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell yousold
and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for
you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden
serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall
I put the chops on, Jim?"
of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten
seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object
in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a yearwhat
is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer.
The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark
assertion will be illuminated later on.
drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything
in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like
my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you
had me going a while at first."
fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream
of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change tohysterical
tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting
powers of the lord of the flat.
there lay The Combsthe set of combs, side
and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful
combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rimsjust
the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs,
she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without
the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses
that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with
dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"
then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly
upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection
of her bright and ardent spirit.
it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look
at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see
how it looks on it."
of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back
of his head and smiled.
said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're
too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy
your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."
magi, as you know, were wise menwonderfully
wise menwho 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. Of all who give and receive gifts, such
as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.