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The Gift of the Magi
By O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Year of Publication
The Magi
Three: A Magic Number
Theme
Climax
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Author Information
Complete Story on This Page
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2006
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.......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 crieshowls, 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.
.......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.
.......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.
.......“You’ve cut off your hair?”
......."Cut it off and sold it,"  Della says.
.......“You say your hair is gone?”
.......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, turtoise-shell combs she had long eyed in a shop window. To comfort him, she says, “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
.......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.
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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 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." 

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. .

Type of Work and Year of Publication

.......“The 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. 

The Three 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 giftsgold, frankincense, and myrrh." 
.......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.
  • 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 "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.
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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. 

Study 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 Porter’s use of figures of speech to enhance his narrative. 
  • 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 backyard.”
  • 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.
Author Information

.......William 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, O. Henry.

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Complete Story
The Gift of the Magi
By O. Henry

.......One 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 be Christmas.
.......There 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.
.......While 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.
.......In 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.
.......Della 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 Jim.
.......There 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 art.
.......Suddenly 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.
.......Now, 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.
.......So 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. 
.......On 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.
.......Where 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."
......."Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.
......."I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."
.......Down rippled the brown cascade. "Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
......."Give it to me quick," said Della. 
.......Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
.......She 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.
.......When 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.
.......Within 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.
......."If 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 eighty-seven cents?"
.......At 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.
.......Jim 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."
.......The 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 gloves.
.......Jim 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.
.......Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
......."Jim, 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."
......."You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
......."Cut 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?"
.......Jim looked about the room curiously.
......."You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
......."You 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?"
.......Out 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.
.......Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
......."Don't 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."
.......White 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.
.......For 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.
.......But 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!"
.......And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
.......Jim 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.
......."Isn't 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."
.......Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
......."Dell," 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."
.......The 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.
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