The Gift of the Magi

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 sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor 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 color 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 ornamentation—as 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 value—the 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 friends—a 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 do—oh! 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-two—and 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 it because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again—you 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 nice—what 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 you—sold 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 year—what 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 to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just 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 them 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 men—wonderfully wise men—who 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.


  1. The narrator apologizes for his "hashed metaphor" because it is a mixed metaphor. The hours cannot trip by on wings, rosy or otherwise; they would have to trip by on nimble feet--or something like that. Furthermore, the wings, if they existed, would probably not be rosy but more likely white or transparent.

    — William Delaney
  2. Evidently some young women were starting to cut their hair short. These would undoubtedly be women, such as chorus girls, who had to go out into the working world every day. Unlike Della, who is an example of an old-fashioned, stay-at-home wife, working women could not devote hours to caring for long hair. By the 1920's women were becoming somewhat liberated from the home and consequently were starting to "bob" their hair. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes about this historic phenomenon in his story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" (1920).

    — William Delaney
  3. The reader can appreciate the transformation in Della's appearance because O. Henry devoted so many words to describing the abundance and beauty of her hair before Madame Sofronie hacked it all off. For example:

    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.


    — William Delaney
  4. O. Henry drops allusions to the Youngs' poverty throughout the story. This is a sign of good professional writing. He does not risk boring the reader with long descriptions but sprinkles it amid the action and dialogue. O. Henry's stories are worth reading just for their many miniature pictures of the times.

    — William Delaney
  5. Della wants to sell her hair before she loses her nerve and changes her mind. 

    — William Delaney
  6. It is not clear whether the card bearing the name Mr. James Dillingham Young is "appertaining" to the letter-box or the electric button. Probably it appertains to both. There would be a letter-box with an electric button directly under it, and the card would be under the electric button. When O. Henry says that no "mortal finger" could coax a ring out of the bell, he is probably suggesting facetiously that anyone who could get the bell to ring would have to have supernatural powers. The couple must have lived in this building for a long time, judging from the condition of the calling card "appertaining" to the letter-box and electric button.

    — William Delaney
  7. O. Henry seems to want to establish that Della and Jim are legally married. The use of Jim's full name on the calling care suggests that Jim is ambitious and that he has some kind of office job. He is most likely a clerk. The couple belongs to the lower-middle class and not the working class. 

    — William Delaney
  8. Women in those days wore dresses with skirts that came all the way down to their shoes. 

    — William Delaney
  9. Facial powder was about the only makeup respectable women wore in O. Henry's time. They did not wear lipstick or any of the other things that modern American women consider almost necessities.

    The fact that Della "attended to her cheeks with the powder rag" immediately after finishing her cry indicates that she is vain about her appearance. Her concern about her personal appearance plays a big part in this story.

    — William Delaney
  10. One of the distinguishing characteristics of O. Henry's fiction is his way of treating painful subjects with humor. He must have picked this stylistic mannerism up from the great English writer Charles Dickens, whose eccentric sense of humor is conspicuous in such tales as A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. There are numerous examples of O. Henry's humorous treatment of pain and poverty in "The Gift of the Magi."

    This stylistic dualism is probably intended to make the prose seem multidimensional. It also seems to imply that life is always a mixture of comedy and tragedy.

    — William Delaney
  11. This single sentence contains one of O. Henry's trademark "surprise endings." The story focuses so heavily on Della's point of view and her problems that the reader is taken completely by surprise when Jim reveals that he has made a comparable sacrifice.


    — William Delaney
  12. A pier-glass is a tall, thin mirror used for decoration and also to create an illusion of greater space in a room. The pier-glass in an $8 flat would probably look much the worse for age, and it would reflect a living-room with shabby furniture and walls covered with faded wallpaper. O. Henry creates an impression of the Youngs' home with bits of description scattered throughout the story, rather than describing the entire setting in one introductory paragraph. For example: "...a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet." 


    — William Delaney
  13. These are among many indications of the couple's poverty. Della needs new clothes. Jim needs a new overcoat and a pair of gloves because it is the beginning of a New York winter.


    — William Delaney
  14. It is rather a pity that Della has to part with her hair to a shrewd, cold-hearted, low-class woman who uses such language as, "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it." No doubt this lower-class woman is offering far less for the beautiful hair than it is really worth, but she understands Della's necessity.


    — William Delaney
  15. This seems to suggest very strongly that Della is pregnant. She does not think he is burdened with a wife but "to be" burdened with a wife and a baby. The story about the three magi in the Old Testament was all about the birth of a child, the infant Jesus who was born in a stable in Bethlehem. O. Henry may have originally thought of equating Jim and Della with Jesus and Mary but changed his mind because he thought such a story might antagonize many devout readers who might assume that Della's baby was supposed to be the second coming of Christ.

    — William Delaney
  16. Jim must have had to work long hours. He probably got off work at six o'clock and also worked on Saturdays.


    — William Delaney
  17. Men typically carried pocket watches in their vest pockets in those days. The chain was to prevent the valuable watch from being accidentally dropped, which could have been disastrous. 

    — William Delaney
  18. Della is alluding to a saying by Jesus in Matthew 10:30 in the New Testament: "But the very hairs of your head are all numbered." It is Jesus' way of illustrating that God is omniscient.

    — William Delaney
  19. The letters looked blurred because the card was old and Jim could not afford to buy a new supply of calling cards. The fact that he is out of calling cards suggests that he has nobody to call on since his income was so drastically reduced by some unspecified setback. He and Della have each other. and that is about all. 

    — William Delaney
  20. This was once a popular part of the vernacular. It means literally that the thing to be described makes the available adjectives in the language inadequate for the task. It is the same as saying that something is "indescribable" because there are no words to describe it. 

    When O. Henry says "it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad," he is referring to the word "beggar.' Beggars had to be on the lookout for the police because they could get arrested on the popular and ambiguous charge of "vagrancy." Being a vagrant usually meant not having any money. There must have been such a unit as a "Mendicancy Squad" in the police department in O. Henry's time. These cops did not like to make arrests, because there were too many down-and-outers for the courts and jails to accommodate. What the police did in big American cities was to keep the homeless confined to certain parts of the city, which came to be called "Skid Row," a place for men "on the skids" who would stand in rows to get handouts or to beg from passers-by. The businesses in Skid Rows catered to such men. There were liquor stores, flophouses, pawnshops, and one-arm coffee shops (so called because all the men ate at the counter with one arm resting on the counter-top). There were also store-front "missions" where men could get coffee and donuts if they would listen to religious sermonizing. And there were shops that bought and sold old clothes. 

    — William Delaney
  21. There were no supermarkets in O. Henry's day. Typically a housewife like Della would visit a number of different shops to get the things required for dinner and the next morning's breakfast. In addition to the grocer, the vegetable man, and the butcher, Della would probably visit the baker. 


    — William Delaney
  22. Della and Jim live in a furnished flat. The furniture in such cheap flats was typically faded, scratched, and chipped by scores of former tenants. O. Henry describes such places in more detail in his story "The Furnished Room." Single rooms were apt to get damaged even more than flats because the tenants of single rooms were transients who didn't regard the rooms as their homes. O. Henry himself had seen plenty of furnished flats and furnished rooms in New York. He died in a seedy hotel room of cirrhosis of the liver caused by his heavy whiskey drinking.

    — William Delaney
  23. When O. Henry writes that "Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the 'Sofronie," he is suggesting that this woman is using a false name in order to make herself sound foreign, aristocratic, and exotic. She hopes to be taken for an *artiste *because her customers naturally want wigs and toupees that will look realistic and becoming. The words "too white" suggest that she is not from some such foreign land as Romania, Greece, or Turkey, where more swarthy complexions are common, but, as her speech proves to the reader if not to Della, that she is probably of pure Irish descent and may have been born in Ireland or right across the river in Brooklyn. Madame Sofronie may affect some sort of foreign accent when she is talking to a customer, but she does not have to put on any airs with needy women like Della who come to sell their hair. The word "chilly" in O. Henry's description is not intended to suggest that the woman feels cold but that her manner is unfriendly.

    This is the line of Madame's dialogue that gives her away to the perceptive reader:

    "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

    Madame Sofronie speaks pure Brooklynese.

    — William Delaney