ICSE short stories cont’d: The Gift of the Magi

Gift of the Magi Main Points:

• Della and Jim Young, the main characters in “The Gift of the Magi,” are a young married couple with very little money. Jim has suffered a thirty-percent pay cut, and the two must scrimp for everything. On the day before Christmas, Della counts the money she has painstakingly saved for months. She is dismayed to find she has less than two dollars, hardly enough to buy anything at all. After a good long cry, Della becomes determined to find a way to buy Jim the present he deserves. As she looks into a mirror, an idea comes to her.

• Jim and Della have two possessions of which they are both proud. One is Jim’s gold watch, which has been handed down from his grandfather. The other is Della’s hair, lustrous, shining, and falling past her knees. Before she can lose her nerve, Della races out of the apartment to a wig-maker, Mme. Sofronie, to whom she sells her hair for twenty dollars. With the money in her hand, Della goes to the stores, trying to find something worthy of Jim. At last she finds it: a platinum watch chain.

• Once home, Della attempts to fix her cut hair. She heats a frying pan for dinner and waits nervously by the front door for Jim. When Jim comes in and sees Della’s hair, he says nothing. His face shows no anger, surprise, disapproval, or horror—none of the sentiments Della was expecting. Instead, he only stares.

• Della goes to him, explaining that she sold her hair to buy his gift. Jim has a difficult time understanding, but suddenly he snaps out of his daze. He draws from his pocket Della’s Christmas present. She opens it and finds a set of combs for her hair, which she had been admiring in a store window for a long time. She now understands why Jim was so stunned. Della gives Jim his present, but he does not pull out his watch to fit to the chain, for he has sold his watch to buy Della’s combs.

• The narrator explains that the wise men, or magi, brought gifts to the baby Jesus and so invented the giving of Christmas gifts. Because these men were wise, they no doubt gave wise gifts. Della and Jim, the narrator asserts, have unwisely sacrificed their most precious possessions. Yet, because they gave from the heart, they are wise: “They are the magi.”


• Della Young and Jim Young

Della is the wife of Jim Young. As the story opens, she is counting the money that she has saved to buy her husband his Christmas present, and she is reduced to tears when she realizes how little she has. Della and Jim are poor; she has only managed to scrape together $1.87, despite saving carefully for months. She is a pretty, slender young woman. Her long brown hair, when she lets it down, cascades past her knees. In one of several biblical allusions, O. Henry notes that Della’s beautiful hair would be envied by the Queen of Sheba herself.

In a moment of resourcefulness and courage, Della decides to sell her hair so that she can buy a present for her beloved Jim. With the money from her hair, she buys Jim a beautiful watch chain elegant enough to complement his gold heirloom watch—their only other material possession of any worth.

Della’s husband, Jim, is a thin, serious young man, twenty-two years old.  He works hard, not returning home until seven o’clock, and is reliable: ”Jim was never late.” Jim’s most prized possession is the gold watch that has been handed down to him from his grandfather and his father. Continuing the biblical allusion begun with the Queen of Sheba, O. Henry claims that King Solomon himself would have envied Jim’s watch. But Jim clearly values his young wife more than his gold watch, because he sells it in order to buy her a set of beautiful, jewel-edged tortoiseshell combs for her long hair. When the couple discover that both have sold their treasures to buy a wonderful present—and in the process, made those presents useless—Jim reacts with gentle humour and the same kind of resilience Della shows.

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