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“The Gift of the Magi” is a classic Christmas story of love and sacrifice. Written by O. Henry (the pen name of prolific short story writer Willian Sydney Porter), the story was first published in the New York Sunday World in December 1905.
James (Jim) Dillingham Young and his wife Della live in poverty. Jim’s salary has recently been reduced to $20 a week. O. Henry highlights their financial struggles with descriptions of the apartment: “In the hall below was a letter-box too small to hold a letter. There was an electric bell, but it could not make a sound” (1). He continues: “There was a looking-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen the kind of looking-glass that is placed in $8 furnished rooms. It was very narrow” (2). In addition to living in a dilapidated apartment, Jim and Della don’t have adequate clothing for the winter. O. Henry writes of Jim: “He looked very thin and he was not smiling. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and with a family to take care of! He needed a new coat and he had nothing to cover his cold hands” (4). Despite their poverty, Della and Jim have two treasured possessions: Jim’s gold watch and Della’s long, luxurious hair. These two prized possessions symbolize for both characters that they have more societal value than their current living situation suggests.
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The story begins on Christmas Eve with Della in deep despair because, despite careful months of saving and budgeting, she only has $1.87 to buy her husband a Christmas gift. As she is combing her hair in front of their narrow mirror, Della has an idea. She decides to cut her hair and sell it to buy Jim a present. While Jim is at work, Della hurries to Mrs. Sofronie’s shop where Mrs. Sofronie offers $20 for her hair. After her hair cut, Della shops for two hours, looking for the perfect gift for Jim. She finally finds a gold watch chain to match Jim’s watch. O. Henry writes, “As soon as she saw it, she knew that Jim must have it. It was like him. Quietness and value—Jim and the chain both had quietness and value” (3).
Della waits anxiously for Jim’s return that evening, afraid that he will no longer think that she’s pretty. Indeed, when Jim first sees her, he is shocked. He looks around the tiny apartment, trying to find her hair, while she pleads with him and assures him that her hair will grow back. To explain his strange reaction, Jim hands Della a package. She unwraps the gift to find a set of fine hair combs that she had admired many times in the store window but never hoped to own because of how expensive they were. She’s overwhelmed both by the present and the fact that her hair is gone (5).
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Della excitedly hands Jim his present. The narrator says, “The gold seemed to shine softly as if with her own warm and loving spirit. ‘Isn’t it perfect, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it’” (6). Jim, however, had sold his watch to buy Della’s present. Both Della and Jim sacrificed their most prized possession to buy each other a Christmas gift they knew the other would value. The story ends with the narrator reflecting on the significance of Della and Jim’s sacrifice and the depth of their love: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise” (6).
By O. Henry