From the beginning of O. Henry’s classic short story “The Gift of the Magi,” the reader is aware of the poverty of the protagonists. The opening paragraph references the pitiful savings of the female character, Della, despite her frugalness and the emotional pain that her meager savings has caused. O. Henry, born William Sidney Porter, depicts an economicallyndepressed setting for the story that will follow. As he notes early in “The Gift of the Magi,” the setting will be sparse and confined due to the socioeconomic conditions in which the characters, the Youngs, exist: “Furnished rooms at a cost of $8 a week. There is little more to say about it.” As the story progresses, the author continues to emphasize the limited financial means of the apartment’s occupants, describing a letter box too small to accommodate a letter, and a looking glass, “the kind of looking-glass that is placed in $8 furnished rooms. It was very narrow. A person could see only a little of himself at a time.”
This is the setting in which O. Henry’s story of a young struggling couple sacrificing for each other in a particularly ironic manner takes place. Della, of course, cuts off and sells her long beautiful hair in order to buy a gold chain for Jim’s precious gold watch. Jim, in the meantime, had sold the watch in order to buy combs for Della’s hair. It is the sacrifice each makes for the other that gives the story its title. Jim and Della Young occupy a very humble abode—one befitting their stage in life. While the author presents only minor details about their apartment, it is clear that his protagonists are of very limited means.