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The Gift of the Magi | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Della's Dilemma

It's Christmas Eve, and Della Young, a young married woman, has only $1.87 to buy her husband, Jim Young, a gift. Her lack of money is not for trying. The Youngs are living with difficulty on $20 a week, of which $8 goes to rent their furnished New York apartment. The apartment reflects their impoverished financial status: it has a shabby little couch, a worn carpet, and a broken doorbell. Della tries to make the remainder of the money go as far as possible, shamelessly bartering with the vegetable man and the butcher. But she has managed to save only $1.87.

Very much in love with her husband, Della has spent "Many a happy hour ... planning for something nice for him." She wants to buy him something special, "something fine and rare and sterling," not something ordinary or practical. Discouraged by her lack of money, she has a good cry on the couch. When she gets up, she dries her cheeks and stares out the window.

Pursuit of a Solution

An idea comes to Della, and she turns her attention to the long mirror in the apartment. She lets down her long, beautiful, knee-length hair. It is her most prized possession, "rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters."

After gazing at her hair, Della "nervously and quickly" puts it back up. She briefly hesitates and sheds a few tears, but she does not give way to another cry on the couch. Instead she puts on her jacket and hat and heads outside with determination and a sparkle in her eyes. She goes directly to a shop with the sign "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." Inside the store, she asks the proprietor, Madame Sofronie, if she will buy her hair. Madame asks Della to take her hat off so she can examine her hair. She lifts the hair with "a practiced hand" and offers $20 for it. Della agrees to the price, and Madame cuts her hair.

Armed with ample money for a special gift worthy of her husband, Della spends two happy hours scouring the stores. She finds a simple, dignified-looking platinum chain and decides it is perfect for Jim. It will replace the worn leather strap on which his inherited gold watch hangs now. After purchasing it, she heads home, where she fixes up her hair, worried Jim may say she now looks like a "Coney Island chorus girl." She prepares coffee, gets their dinner ready for cooking, and waits for Jim to return home.

Revelation

At seven o'clock Della is sitting at a table near the door when she hears Jim's footsteps on the stair. A momentary panic seizes her, and she prays her husband will still find her pretty. Jim opens the door and steps into the apartment. He is totally silent, and he stares at Della with an unreadable expression on his face. It terrifies Della, even though it is "not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for." Unable to stand the uncertainty, Della goes to him and implores him not to look at her in that odd way. She explains she sold her hair because she could not bear not to have a Christmas gift for him. Besides, her hair will grow back very quickly.

As if in a stupor, Jim asks if she cut off her hair. Della affirms she has and asks if he still likes her, insisting she's the same person she was when she had long hair. Jim repeats his question as if he cannot take in the fact she has cut her hair. After a long moment or two, he comes out of his trance and embraces Della. He then pulls a package out of his pocket and tells her that nothing she could ever do to her hair can change his love for her.

Della opens the package and discovers a set of beautiful tortoiseshell combs she had seen in a shop. She had fallen in love with them but had no expectation she would ever own them because they were expensive and therefore way beyond the reach of their budget. Della then gives Jim his gift and asks for his watch so she can "see how it looks on it." Jim sits on the couch and tells Della they should put their gifts away for a while. He then explains he has sold his watch to buy her combs.

Outcome

Jim and Della have sold their most prized possessions to buy each other a gift. The gifts cannot be used as they were meant to be because the treasured possessions they were intended to complement have been sold. Jim suggests they put their gifts away for the moment because they're "too nice to use just at present." Neither Jim nor Della is unduly upset, though, and the narrator explains why. Although they have "most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house," they still have a far greater treasure: their love for each other. The narrator explains the intangible gift they gave each other—their love—makes them the wisest people of all, and calls them the magi.

Analysis

Classic Christmas Story

"A Gift of the Magi" has become a Christmas classic because it shows how the gift of love is more important than any material gift a person can give. Della Young and her husband, Jim, are universal types rather than highly developed characters. They are young, struggle financially, and want to show their love for each other through Christmas gifts. O. Henry does not develop the characters beyond these characteristics. For example, he suggests they recently came to New York City and that Jim Young is a career professional, but he does not provide information about his career. Readers do not know if he is an aspiring banker or scientist. Such specific details about the characters, which would make them stand out and be more individual, are not provided. Instead they are types, or characters that could represent an individual who aspires to be a banker or a scientist, who came to New York from the Midwest or the South, who is kind or easily irritable, who is very ambitious or just trying to get by.

The first sentences of the story grab the reader's attention: "One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all." Most everyone has been there—short of money and needing more. By the end of the first paragraph, the direness of Della and Jim's situation is revealed. The next day is Christmas and a special gift-giving time. To be short of money on such a day is cause for woe, and it immediately sets the stage for Della's dilemma. Even if it were not Christmas, it would be easy to recast the story on any day on which a special gift is called for, such as a birthday, graduation, or anniversary.

The story unfolds with the narrator revealing bits and pieces about the characters and their situation. O. Henry does not say they are poor or in love, but he shows it with his descriptions of their environment and actions. For example, the narrator describes how Jim Young is merely known as Jim when he arrives home and is "greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young." The narrator further communicates Della's affection for her husband with the simple words "her Jim."

In the first part of the story the narrator primarily describes Della's thoughts and actions, showing her dilemma and how she solves it. The narrator details Della's shopping trip, her preparations at home, and her emotions—her elation, jittery nervousness, and fear that Jim will not like her with short hair. The narrator reveals only a few things about Jim. Readers learn he is financially struggling and has had a pay cut. He, like Della, is wearing old clothes. He is quiet and somewhat vain, possessing a fine, inherited gold watch he would show off if it were not attached to an old leather strap. Jim is reliable, always arriving home at the same time. Other than these few traits, however, readers know little about Jim and know nothing about how he has spent his day.

When Jim arrives home, the narrator reveals how he faced a similar gift-giving dilemma and found a similar solution to it. Readers get the first hint through the narrator's description of his arrival. He stops in the door and is "as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail." This conflicts with the earlier description of how he is "greatly hugged" when he comes home. He stares at Della with an expression "she could not read," and it terrifies her. Even after she goes to him, he remains in a trance, showing something momentous is going on within him. Eventually he comes out of it and reassures Della he loves her the same despite her short hair. Rather than explaining this to Della in words, however, he gives her his gift—beautiful hair combs she had coveted but which are now useless in her short hair.

Without saying a word about Jim's activities earlier that day, the narrator has conveyed that Jim has sold his watch. Jim seems to sense what Della has been up to. When she shows him his present, he declines to take it. He proposes they put their presents away, tells Della he sold his watch, and suggests she cook their dinner. The narrator reveals Jim's emotions through his words and by describing his actions. He is calm, matter of fact, and accepting of the situation rather than angry or distressed.

The story ends with a classic "O. Henry double twist." Not only has Della sold her hair to buy Jim a gold watch chain, making Jim's gift useless, but Jim has sold his gold watch to buy Della combs, making Della's gift useless. This is also an example of situational irony because it is not what readers expected when they followed Della's story as she went about her day, selling her hair and shopping for a gift for her husband. The expectation was her husband would be pleased by her gift. He may have been pleased by her gift if he still owned the gold watch, but since he has sold it, he suggests they set their presents aside and keep them. He knows they cannot use them, which is not at all what Della expected when she purchased her gift for Jim.

The narrator explains how their gift makes them "the wisest," as wise as the biblical magi. Since the magi were wise men who brought gifts to Christ on his birth, this is indeed a fine compliment. On the anniversary of Christ's birth, Christmas, Jim and Della give each other a gift even more fitting than those the magi brought to Jesus—the gift of their love.

Gender Roles

Della Young and Jim Young have gender roles typical of the early 1900s. Jim works outside the home and is the sole source of income for the couple. Della has the traditional role of the housewife. She is the "mistress of the home," shops, and cooks.

Both take their roles seriously. Della attempts to make their meager income stretch as far as possible. She bargains with the butcher and other vendors, even when it makes her feel slightly ashamed. Jim had hoped to be progressing in his work more than he has by now, but instead he is being paid less than in the past. Both Della and Jim are dedicated to their dream of living in the city, most likely to advance Jim's career. They have forfeited the material comforts their earlier life offered and are living in a rundown apartment and wearing old clothes.

Della is eager to please her husband. Not only does she have dinner ready to cook when her husband comes home, she pretties up her hair for her husband and greets him affectionately when he enters. Jim is also eager to please his wife. He has taken on the role of the financial provider and the protector. When they discover they have each given away their most valuable possessions in order to buy each other gifts they cannot use, he tries to shield Della from being upset.

The narrator also reveals O. Henry's gender biases. Della is prone to emotional outbursts and anxiety. For example, she has a good cry when she realizes she only has $1.87 saved up. She does not let her emotions get the best of her, however. After a short cry she is ready to carry on, with the narrator pointing out how life is made up of "sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating." Her anxiety is revealed by her "habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things." While these traits may be unique to Della, the narrator confirms they are indicative of O. Henry's attitude toward women in general by describing Della's change from joy to hysterical tears as "a quick feminine change."

There is no similar "quick male change" for Jim. He is portrayed as calm and stoic. His silence when he first comes home and sees Della with her hair cut off is described as a trance, one in which he keeps his emotions in check and does not immediately show them. Once he realizes what has happened, he matter-of-factly suggests they put away their presents and have dinner. There are no expressions of anguish or surprise. He carries on as if nothing has happened. But when Della cries "hysterical tears," he reacts in a traditional male way, using "all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat." O. Henry's use of the word necessitating suggests Della has used feminine wiles to elicit the traditional male response of O. Henry's characters.

Then and Now

Della Young has $1.87 to buy her husband, Jim Young, a Christmas gift. That amount of money today might pay for a candy bar or two, or possibly a cup of coffee in a diner. In 1905, though, $1.87 was worth a lot more. With adjustments for inflation, it would be worth $49.40 today—enough to buy a basic watch and a chain with money left over. Such inexpensive consumer goods were not the norm back in 1905, however. Della also wants to buy something of value, something befitting her husband's stature. She is young and newly married, and it is possible this is the couple's first Christmas as a married couple. She ends up selling her hair for $20 ($528 in 2017 terms) and buys a watch chain for $21 (or $555). She was seeking to buy a high-quality gift and was able to get top dollar for her hair.

What are the present-day values of the other monetary amounts mentioned in the story? The Youngs are renting a furnished flat at $8 a week, or $32 a month. In 2017 terms, that is $211 a week, or $845 a month. While it is possible in 2017 to find studio apartments in some neighboring cities for under a $1,000, one would be hard-pressed to find anything at all in New York City for that amount. In 2017 the average rent for a Manhattan studio was just under $3,000 a month! So while the Youngs live in a shabby apartment, it is one they could not afford on a comparable income in 2017.

What was the value of their income in 2017 terms? Jim was making $20 a week, which is equal to $528 when adjusted for inflation. His total annual income would have a 2017 value of $27,474. This was a decline from his previous job, when he earned $30 a week, which translates to $793 a week in 2017 terms, or $41,236 a year. Calculating the 2017 values of their earnings, expenses, and available money—plus the amount Della is willing to spend on a gift—shows they were not destitute, but simply a young couple struggling to make ends meet, like many young individuals and couples today. And in New York, they would have great financial troubles.

Allusions

An allusion is an indirect reference to something outside the story. Allusions often reference a historical, literary, or biblical figure. In "The Gift of the Magi" there are three biblical allusions, a possible historical allusion, and an allusion to O. Henry's own life.

The narrator mentions the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, suggesting their treasures and possessions would have paled in comparison to Della's hair and Jim's gold watch. Both are biblical figures. The Queen of Sheba, having heard reports about King Solomon's greatness, travels to Jerusalem to meet him personally. She is so impressed when they meet that she gives him gold, precious stones, and rare spices as presents. King Solomon, equally taken with her, bestows many gifts on the queen.

The magi mentioned at the end of the story are also biblical figures. They were wise men from the East who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem after his birth and brought him gifts of gold and precious essential oils. In many cultures, they are an essential part of Christmas.

Madame Sofronie, the woman who bought Della's hair, may be a reference to a historical figure. Sofronie of Cioara was an 18th-century monk who led a movement to help peasants in Transylvania. However, while the monk was interested in helping the poor, Madame is interested only in her own commercial profits. O. Henry liked to contrast two seemingly incongruous ideas in his stories. He may be doing that here to illustrate the theme of materialism versus spirituality.

Another allusion in the story refers to O. Henry's own life. After Della returns home with her shorn hair, she "went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task." While curling her hair and making it look better may have been a difficult task, it was not a "mammoth task." O. Henry, however, personally experienced the "mammoth task" of repairing his relationship with his first wife, Athol. He returned to Texas from Central America to be with his dying wife, knowing he would have to stand trial for embezzlement if he returned to the United States. This ravaged his life because he was sentenced to prison. Three years and three months in prison was the price he paid for returning to Texas to be with the woman he loved before she died. "Repairing the ravages" could also refer to O. Henry's attempt to improve his relationship with his daughter after he was released from prison, or to repairing the damage of having been in prison. (He never told his daughter he was incarcerated. She thought she was sent to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because he was busy with work. He went to that city immediately after his release from prison and tried to make up for his absence in her life.)

A Touch of Drama and Verbal Irony

Most people know a person who sometimes rushes into a room, late, and immediately explodes into a story about all the things that happened that prevented a timely arrival. Instead of just saying, "I was running behind," the explanation is spiced up. This type of slightly inflated, or exaggerated, wording is a hallmark of O. Henry's stories. He uses exaggeration and unusual phrasing and word choices to lend flair to his writing and to make things seem a little more interesting than they really are. For example, rather than saying the doorbell was broken, he describes it as an "electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring."

One of his most obvious exaggerations in the story is his description of a pier glass, or large mirror that was often hung between two windows. O. Henry wants to show how small the Youngs' apartment is, so he describes the pier glass as so tiny only "a very thin and very agile person" like Della could see her reflection in it. This is an example of verbal irony, in which words have a different meaning than the apparent one. In this case they are an overstatement, or exaggeration.

Verbal irony also can be understatement. O. Henry tends to minimize the importance of the Queen of Sheba by presenting a hypothetical situation in which she "lived in the flat across the airshaft"—a highly unlikely scenario. He presents a similar hypothetical situation in which King Solomon is a janitor living in a basement, and presents him in a stereotypical way as a janitor who collects broken-down "treasures" and things other tenants have discarded. O. Henry also minimizes the importance of the magi, suggesting their gifts could be "exchange[d] in case of duplication." Verbal irony sometimes borders on sarcasm, as when the narrator says the combs Jim bought for Della were "just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair."

O. Henry uses unusual phrasing to make things sound more interesting and dramatic than they really are. Instead of saying something is discarded or deleted, it is "flung to the breeze." Della was not just shopping for Jim's present, she was "ransacking the stores." She did not just look at all the merchandise in the stores, she "turned all of them inside out." Rather than just fixing her shorn hair, she "repair[ed] the ravages made by generosity added to love." Jim's comforting his wife is described as "the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat."

The narrator's conversational tone also adds a bit of drama to the story. There is a conspiratorial tone to many comments, such as when the narrator says, "While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home" and "For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction." Add in overblown diction, such as "This dark assertion will be illuminated later on," and the reader gets the sense of a narrator who exaggerates or who wants to make the ordinary seem more extraordinary. That, too, is classic O. Henry: he wrote about ordinary people and ordinary events, but he wanted to make them special, to elevate people out of the dullness of ordinary life.

The Gift of the Magi Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Della Young and Jim Young struggle to make it in New York.

Rising Action

2 Della has only $1.87 to buy her husband a Christmas gift.

3 Della comes up with an idea how to get money.

4 Della sells her long hair for $20.

5 Della shops until she finds the perfect gift.

6 Della goes home, fixes her hair, and starts dinner.

Climax

7 Jim comes home, and he and Della exchange gifts.

Falling Action

8 Jim and Della discuss having gifts they cannot use.

Resolution

9 Jim and Della recognize their love is the best gift of all.

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