Della had saved only one dollar and eighty-seven cents with which to buy Jim a Christmas present. Though she has saved for months, the sum is not nearly enough for the chain which she wants to give him as a fitting complement to his most prized possession, his gold watch. Saddened, she decides to get the extra money by selling her most prized possession, her hair.
When Jim comes home that night, Della has tightly curled her shorn hair, hoping that Jim will still find her pretty. For a few moments, Jim is dumbfounded, incredulous. Then he hugs his wife and lovingly gives her a Christmas present: a set of combs she has always wanted. To buy them as a complement to her most prized possession, he has sold his own, his gold watch.
In spite of an old-fashioned talkiness, the story succeeds because it tempers sentimentality with humor and real insight. The trick ending, typical of O. Henry, is here not so much a contrivance of plot as it is a genuine irony found often in the deepest human relationships. Jim’s selling of his watch and Della’s selling of her hair are not merely examples of manufactured storytelling, but rather of a recognition of love’s readiness for ultimate self-sacrifice, which is its own reward. In depriving themselves, Della and Jim enrich each other. They are, as O. Henry concludes, the true magi, the wisest of the wise.
O. Henry maintains a lightness of tone, the attitude of a genial observer, so that the story does not become overburdened with false pathos, and the trick ending appears as natural as the course of true love.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). New York: Twayne, 1965. Includes a biography of O. Henry and a critical analysis of his work’s structure and its technical characteristics. Analyzes his popularity and the subsequent decline of his reputation. Discusses his influence on the development of the American short story.
Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957. Analyzes the work as well as the life of the writer. Asserts that O. Henry’s rightful place in American literature is that of a minor but classic writer.
Long, E. Hudson. O. Henry: The Man and His Work. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949. This biography makes a case for O. Henry as a “humorist, craftsman, and social historian.” Long claims that O. Henry is properly understood and appreciated in the context of the times in which he lived and the audience for which he wrote.
O’Connor Richard. O. Henry: The Legendary Life of William Porter. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970. Traces the life of O. Henry from his boyhood in North Carolina through his Texas and Ohio prison years, and, finally, to New York. Vividly portrays the early twentieth century New York City evoked in his work.
Smith, C. Alphonso. O. Henry. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1980. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Page, 1916. A biography and analysis of O. Henry’s work written by a professor who knew O. Henry. Most interesting because, having been written in 1916, during the height of his popularity, it reveals a great deal about late Victorian culture and literary tastes.