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.

Footnotes

  1. Jim has a peculiar expression on his face because he doesn't even recognize his wife with her shorn hair and funny little curls. He thinks he has accidentally entered the wrong apartment. He may be afraid this strange woman will let out a scream.

    — William Delaney
  2. O. Henry interjects here to build on his theme. He says that a “mathematician or a wit” wouldn’t consider that having love, but only getting paid eight dollars a week, is far more valuable than if one didn’t have love, but made a million dollars a year.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. This line contrasts with the previous sentence that says, “Jim was never late.” These two absolute statements of “never” and “always” show the practiced routine of the two lovers. They know each other perfectly and seem to be completely in tune with one another.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The theme of the story is unconditional love knows no boundaries. The gifts that Jim and Della give to one another end up having no useful function, but they are the most valuable gifts for either of them to have given because the gifts symbolize the sacrifices they are willing to make for their love for one another.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The “magi” referred to here, and in the title, are the “Three Wise Men” that play a part in the nativity story in the Bible. In the story, the magi travel hundreds of miles to be there when Jesus is born. The magi each brought a different gift: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is where the tradition of gift giving on Christmas comes from.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Meretricious means aesthetically attractive, but containing no actual value. In this case, Della hopes that the watch will be valuable because of its sensible use, not its flashiness. This is also a piece of *dramatic irony*. The love between the couple is far more valuable to both of them than any material goods. Therefore the idea of purchasing a material gift in the hope that it will make Jim happy is itself “meretricious ornamentation.”

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The turn in drab, heavy narration to light and “rosy” tones is a metaphor for Della’s change in emotion after having cut her hair. Although the reader may think she feels some regret about the loss of her beautiful hair, her ability to radiate joy speaks to how much she truly loves Jim.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. King Solomon of Israel, a rich king from the Old Testament, was visited by the Queen of Sheba because she wanted to test his wisdom. She asked him a series of difficult questions, and when he answered all of them correctly, she was so impressed that she showered him with gold and jewels. Then, to show his gratitude, King Solomon granted her everything she desired.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. The Queen of Sheba, a wealthy queen from the Old Testament, ruled an ancient kingdom in the region of modern-day Ethiopia. This Biblical allusion is not surprising considering how the title of the story itself is a Biblical allusion.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. O. Henry’s repetitive use of the word “grey” in this sentence intensifies the drab imagery of the story. It also symbolizes the sadness Della feels as Christmas approaches, because she doesn’t feel as though it will be joyful unless she can find the perfect gift for her husband.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The mendicancy squad were police forces who arrested homeless people and beggars. This phrase tells the reader that the conditions this couple are living in are near the poverty level.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. During the time this was published, $8 per week would be the rent for a lower-middle class apartment in New York City. The fact that it is furnished, and still a low price, means the apartment itself is in extremely poor condition.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. This line exemplifies O. Henry’s writing style. He asks the reader to “take a look at the home,” but only offers minimal description of what is inside (“the shabby little couch”), leaving the rest of the image of the apartment to be decided by the imagination of the reader.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. O. Henry uses *alliteration* here to enhance the *euphony* of the audible reading of the story. Notice how he uses this literary device throughout the rest of the story as a reminder that this is a Christmas story meant to be read aloud.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. Notice how this math doesn’t add correctly: there would be no way to have $1.87 and $0.60 of it in pennies. There has not been a credible explanation for this, however, it is an interesting discrepancy.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. “Beggar description” is an outdated term that means unable to be described. In this case, O. Henry is explaining to the reader that the apartment is not so horrible that it can’t be lived in; however, it’s not so lovely as to deserve a lengthy description. Because this is a Christmas Tale, a lot of the imagery is left to the imagination of the reader.

    — William Delaney
  17. This line is framed by the narrative tension implemented in the first paragraph of the story. Della does not have a lot of time to go shopping for Jim, and now that she has cut her hair, she wants to leave quickly to find him the perfect present before he gets home for work.

    — William Delaney
  18. O. Henry uses the preceding paragraphs to build tension between the two lovers and a bit of confusion. This line breaks the tension by explaining why Jim looked so distraught by the loss of Della’s hair. It isn’t because he loves her superficially; instead it's because he spent money on expensive combs that he figured she would want to use on her long, beautiful hair that she can’t use now.

    — William Delaney
  19. This is another example of a Biblical *allusion* in the story. This line alludes to Luke 12:7: “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” It seems like Jim’s love for Della may not have been what she thought because he seems so distraught by her cut hair. This is Della explaining to Jim that nothing matters more to her than her love for him.

    — William Delaney
  20. The letters look blurred because the card is old. Jim has not been able to replace it with a new card because he cannot afford to pay for it. Notice how O. Henry continually *alludes* to the Dillingham’s low social status through descriptions of their living situation, instead of outright stating to the reader that they are poor.

    — William Delaney
  21. Here is another instance where O. Henry uses repetition to construct drab imagery and tone within the story. This technique demonstrates how authors show tone and emotions in the story through descriptions of objects and imagery, rather than frankly stating them.

    — William Delaney
  22. O. Henry's description of Jim's calling card near the letter-box and the electric button is an adroit way of providing the reader with the full names of both main characters in his story. Jim's card also tends to characterize him as an ambitious man with refined tastes.

    — William Delaney
  23. This line creates a “ticking clock,” for the reader to pay attention to as the story unravels. Della has to solve her urgent problem by Christmas, which is only one day away. Notice how O. Henry constructs the first paragraph by stating the problem and the timeframe within which the problem must be solved. This construction begins the story with basic narrative tension.

    — William Delaney
  24. O. Henry begins this story with an objective, expository statement to show the protagonist’s monetary problems and to set a storytelling tone. Throughout the story look for instances where the third-person narrator doesn’t advance the narrative with a conversational sentence; rather, he uses these instances to enhance the feeling that the reader is being told a sort of Christmas story.

    — William Delaney
  25. O. Henry may be hinting that Della is expecting a baby because up to this point in the story, there has been no mention of children. Since the next day is Christmas, this *alludes* to the story of the birth of Jesus in the Bible. In the Bible, Joseph and Mary, also a poor young couple, spend a night in a stable, where their baby was born in a manger and the three Magi came to worship and give gifts.

    — William Delaney
  26. Here is O. Henry's surprise ending. Della and Jim each gave up their own personal, most valuable possession to make the other person happy on Christmas. This is where the theme of the story becomes abundantly clear: the unconditional love of this couple holds more value than any gift ever could.

    — William Delaney
  27. When this was first published in 1905, there were no supermarkets like there are today. People would go shopping at specialty food stores that sold specific items. They would typically go to different shops to get meat, produce, dairy, or bread.

    — William Delaney