“The Gift of the Magi” By O. Henry
Setting • The action takes place in New York City in a very modest apartment and in a hair shop down the street from the apartment. • Although the author 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. • O. Henry lived in New York when he wrote and published the "The Gift of the Magi."
Characters • Della Young:Pretty young woman who cuts off her beautiful long hair and sells it to buy a Christmas gift for her husband. • James Dillingham Young:Husband of Della. He sells his gold watch to buy a gift for Della. • Madame Sofronie: Shop owner who buys Della's hair. .
Allusion to the Magi • The 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 gifts–gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
Allusion to the Magi Continued • These 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.
Three: 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 2). • 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, and jewels.
Three: A Magic Number Continued • 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 shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. • The narrator alliteratively describes Della as speaking with "suddenserioussweetness."
Three: A Magic Number Continued • The narrator alliteratively describes Della as speaking with "suddenserioussweetness.“ • 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.
Theme: Love • Della 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 • The climax occurs when Della and Jim open their gifts.
Plot Summary • ..On 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 cries–howls, actually. .......She 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. Jim’s salary, formerly $30 a week, is now only $20 a week.
Plot Summary Continued • ...Suddenly, 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 Sofronie’s shop, where the sign reads “Hair Goods of All Kinds.” There, Della sells her hair for $20.
Plot Summary Continued • .After 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 o’clock. 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.
Plot Summary Continued • ...“You’ve cut off your hair?” ......."Cut it off and sold it," Della says. .......“You say your hair is gone?”
Plot Summary Continued • A 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, tortoise-shell combs she had long eyed in a shop window. To comfort him, she says, “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
Plot Summary Continued • .Then 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. .......However, 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.