Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Della Young is a devoted young married woman. Christmas Eve finds her in possession of a meager one dollar and eighty-seven cents, the sum total of her savings, with which she wants to buy a gift for her husband, Jim. A recent cut in the family income, from an ample thirty dollars a week to a stingy twenty dollars a week, has turned Della’s frugality into parsimony. Although she lives in an eight-dollar-a-week flat and her general surroundings, even by the greatest stretch of the imagination, do not meet the standards of genteel poverty, Della determines that she cannot live through Christmas without giving Jim a tangible reminder of the season.
Distraught, she clutches the one dollar and eighty-seven cents in her hand as she moves discontentedly about her tiny home. Suddenly, catching a glance of herself in the cheap pier glass mirror, a maneuver possible only for the slender and agile viewer, the perfect solution suggests itself. Whirling about with happiness, she lets down her long, beautiful hair. It is like brown sable and falls in caressing folds to below her knees. After a moment’s self-admiration, and another half-moment’s reservation, during which time a tear streaks down her face, she resolutely puts on her old hat and jacket and leaves the flat.
Della’s quick steps take her to the shop of Madame Sofronie, an establishment that trades in hair goods of all kinds. Entering quickly, lest her nerve desert her, she offers to sell her hair. Madame Sofronie surveys the luxuriant tresses, unceremoniously slices them off, and hands Della twenty dollars. For the next two hours, Della feels herself in paradise, temporarily luxuriating in the knowledge that she can buy anything she wants. She decides on a watch fob for Jim’s beautiful old watch. If there are two treasures in the world of which James and Della Dillingham Young are inordinately and justly proud, they are her hair (lately and gladly sacrificed) and Jim’s revered gold watch, handed down to him by his grandfather.
She finally sees exactly what she wants, a platinum watch fob that costs...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and Della is distraught. The meager savings she managed to put aside to purchase a gift for her beloved husband is a mere $1.87. It is simply not enough for a present worthy of her Jim.
There were brighter days for this young, loving couple. Earlier, Jim managed to bring home thirty dollars a week. Now, with their income reduced to twenty dollars a week, there is nothing left after basic living expenses are met. Della managed to save her $1.87 by doggedly bullying the grocer, the vegetable man, and the butcher into giving her better prices. Lean living, however, has not dimmed the couple’s devotion to one another. Jim returns home from his job punctually every evening to be greeted by Della’s loving embrace.
Della simply cannot bear the thought of giving her husband a shabby gift or no gift at all. She collapses in tears of frustration, but then inspiration strikes. After taking a long look at herself in a mirror, Della is reminded that her assets extend beyond the pittance she is hoarding. She catches sight of her long, flowing hair, the one worldly possession she takes pride in, and realizes that there is a way to accomplish her goal.
Della sheds a few tears for what will be her lost glory. Just as quickly, however, she represses her emotions, scoops up her old jacket and hat, and leaves the flat. Arriving at a shop whose sign reads Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds, Della inquires what the proprietress would pay for her hair. Coldly, Madame Sonofrie appraises Della’s tresses with an experienced eye and hand and offers twenty dollars. Without hesitation, Della submits to the shearing and walks out with money in hand. After two hours of joyful searching, Della finds the...
(The entire section is 726 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
O. Henry’s most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” translated and reprinted every Christmas around the world, was written in three hours to meet a deadline that O. Henry had ignored for several days. The plot alone—a young woman sells her long beautiful hair to buy her husband a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoiseshell combs for her vanished hair—is sufficient to make the story a classic about the spirit of Christmas. However, it is also O. Henry’s avuncular storytelling voice and his use of a scenic film style that makes it so accessible and irresistible. The story opens on a scene right out of a pantomimed melodrama of the young woman, Della, in her modest apartment crying because she has no money to buy her husband a Christmas gift; that is, until she thinks of the brilliant yet terrifying idea of selling her long beautiful hair to a wig maker.
When the young husband comes home and sees his wife with her hair cropped off, the reader has no way of knowing that the peculiar expression on his face is not shock at her changed appearance but rather bemused recognition that she will be unable to use the gift he has purchased for her. When she opens the combs, the reader sighs at Della’s grand but seemingly worthless sacrifice. When she gives him the watch fob, Jim flops down on the couch, puts his hands under the back of his head and smiles, telling her simply that he sold the watch to get the money to buy her the combs. The story then ends with O. Henry’s little homily about the wise magi, who invented the act of giving Christmas presents, suggesting that the two “foolish children” of his “uneventful chronicle” who unwisely sacrificed for each other the “greatest treasures of their homes” are indeed the wisest of all, for “they are the magi.”