Is Della and Jim's love believable in O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi"?
"The Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry, is a short story which is all about love and sacrifice. Jim and Della Young are a married couple who have few possessions but love one another sacrificially.
The story is set at Christmastime, when each of them wants to be able to get the other a nice gift. Della had hoped to buy "something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim." Jim wanted to do the same for Della. Both have one possession they value above all else: she has long, luxuriant hair and he has a "gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s." The story is a familiar one; Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch and Jim sells his watch to buy combs for Della's hair.
The story was published in 1906 and seems a bit antiquated to many readers, prompting the question of whether their love is perhaps too perfect and therefore unbelievable. While the story is quaint and a little old-fashioned, the Youngs' love is quite believable. The demonstrations of love in this story are repeated all the time by people all around the modern world. Some men and women sacrifice their time by working extra hours to get something nice for a spouse; others do without things they particularly want in order to give something special to someone they love. The nature of love is sacrifice, and people do it all the time but do not necessarily call much attention to themselves as they do it.
The story sounds like it might be too good to be real in some ways, but Della experiences the same emotions we all do. She is frustrated, sad, frightened, and ashamed (because she looks so cheap when she bargains for her groceries) as she goes through the process of buying Jim's gift. We presume the same for Jim, though the story is not told from his perspective. Neither of them is angry at the other when the gifts are revealed; in fact, Jim settles the matter with humor when he suggests they put their "Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present."
The Youngs were once more prosperous, but they have fallen on hard times. Despite that, they are happy.
[W]henever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young.
The love Jim and Della have for one another may seem ideal, or even unbelievable, because we only see one aspect of it; however, the same kind of sacrificial love is recognizable in households all over the world.
Jim is only twenty-two years old, according to the story. From Della's point of view, "He looked thin and very serious." She thinks to herself:
Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family!
Could she mean that she is expecting a baby?
Anyway, they are still very young. It was common for girls to marry at the age of eighteen, right after graduating from high school. Della is probably several years younger than Jim, who has probably been out in the business world since he finished high school. Only a small minority of young people went on to college in those days. The percentage of high-school graduates who went on to college was about five percent, and most of these were males.
The mutual love between Jim and Della is believable because they are still in what is often called "the honeymoon phase" of marriage. This sort of romantic love is characteristic of youth. Unfortunately, it doesn't last for most people--although everyone knows of some exceptions. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a tribute to young love.
O. Henry had one big romantic relationship in his life. According to the Summary in eNotes Study Guide:
A rather normal-looking but foppish man at a height of 5 feet 7 inches, with broad shoulders, blue eyes, chestnut brown hair, and a fashionable mustache, he eloped with young Athol Estes on July 1, 1887, less than three weeks after her graduation from high school. Athol apparently stimulated Porter into more frequent writing, as he sold some humorous items to the Detroit Free Press in 1887. On May 6, 1888, they had a son who died only hours after birth. This seems to have begun the decline in Athol’s health that finally resulted in her death nine years later. On September 30, 1889, she bore their only other child, Margaret.