Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Della, or Mrs. James Dillingham Young, a young housewife in New York City. Deeply in love with her husband, Della is distraught that Christmas Day is imminent and she has but a pittance to spend for a gift for him. Her husband’s salary of $20 a week leaves little after living expenses are paid. Although her love for her husband is enough to sustain her even in this abject poverty, not being able to honor her husband with a worthy Christmas gift is simply too much to bear. She is overcome with tears of helplessness, but they pass as inspiration moves her to a creative solution to her dilemma. Della’s one prideful possession in the midst of her humble circumstances, her long, lustrous hair, may be the means to secure a present that she can wholeheartedly give her beloved. Her willingness to sacrifice for him bespeaks the depth of her love.
James Dillingham Young
James Dillingham Young, Della’s husband. Jim is a thin, serious young man of twenty-two who bears the burden of supporting his wife and himself on only $20 a week. Times had once been better for Jim. In brighter days, he had brought home $30 a week. A drop in their income has not changed the fact of their love for each other. Ever punctual, Jim may be so in part because of the one treasure he possesses, a beautiful gold watch that had belonged to his father and his grandfather before him. Slightly embarrassed by its inglorious fob, an old leather...
(The entire section is 310 words.)
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Della is the wife of Jim Young. As the story opens, she is counting the money that she has saved to buy her husband his Christmas present, and she is reduced to tears when she realizes how little she has. Della and Jim are poor; she has only managed to scrape together $1.87, despite saving carefully for months. But O. Henry makes Della's happiness in her love for Jim quite clear: "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 honour of being owned by Jim."
She is a pretty, slender young woman. Her long brown hair, when she lets it down, cascades past her knees. In one of several biblical allusions, O. Henry notes that Della's beautiful hair would be envied by the Queen of Sheba herself. In a moment of resourcefulness and courage, Della decides to sell her hair so that she can buy a present for her beloved Jim. With the money from her hair, she buys Jim a beautiful watch chain elegant enough to complement his gold heirloom watch—their only other material possession of any worth.
Later that day, while waiting for Jim to return home from work, Della experiences a moment of insecurity. Though she has curled what is left of her hair as attractively as she can, she worries that Jim might no longer find her beautiful. When he arrives and appears stunned by her appearance, Della again shows unselfishness, courage, and...
(The entire section is 300 words.)
James Dillingham Young
Della's husband, Jim, is a thin, serious young man, twenty-two years old. O. Henry tells the reader what Jim is like, and also indicates Della's feelings for him, when he compares Jim to the platinum watch chain: "[the watch fob] was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both." He works hard, not returning home until seven o'clock, and is reliable: ''Jim was never late.''
Jim's most prized possession is the gold watch that has been handed down to him from his grandfather and his father. Continuing the biblical allusion begun with the Queen of Sheba, O. Henry claims that King Solomon himself would have envied Jim's watch. But Jim clearly values his young wife more than his gold watch, because he sells it in order to buy her a set of beautiful, jewel-edged tortoiseshell combs for her long hair.
When the couple discover that both have sold their treasures to buy a wonderful present—and in the process, made those presents useless—Jim reacts with gentle humor and the same kind of resilience Della has shown. First he affirms his love, telling her, "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." In the end, rather than bemoaning their situation, he smiles and suggests, "Let's put our presents away and keep 'em awhile. They're too nice to use just at present."
(The entire section is 242 words.)
See Della Young
See James Dillingham Young
See Mme Sofronie
Madame Sofronie, the only character in the story other than the Youngs, owns the local hair-goods shop; in the early 1900s, when this story was written, wigs were made of real human hair. She has a small role in the story, but O. Henry provides a rich characterization with only one sentence: "Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the 'Sofronie.'" She is blunt: when Della asks whether she would buy her hair, she says, "I buy hair" and brusquely tells Della to take her hat off so she can see it. She offers Della twenty dollars for her hair.
(The entire section is 116 words.)