Della impetuously sells her beautiful long hair in order to raise enough money to buy her husband a Christmas present. Then when she buys the present, a platinum watch fob, and gets back home, she begins to worry about what Jim is going to think of her when he comes...
Della impetuously sells her beautiful long hair in order to raise enough money to buy her husband a Christmas present. Then when she buys the present, a platinum watch fob, and gets back home, she begins to worry about what Jim is going to think of her when he comes home from work.
“If Jim doesn't kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”
Her anxiety increases throughout the rest of the day while she is waiting for her husband to return. By the time she hears him coming up the stairs, she is actually praying.
She had a habit for saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”
So Della expects Jim to have a strong reaction to her new look, with her head covered by little curls held in place with hairpins. She thinks he will say she looks like a Coney Island chorus girl. No doubt chorus girls were among the first young women to start cutting their hair short. They were hard working girls who had to perform in four shows over a long afternoon and evening. They didn't have time to take proper care of long hair in the days when they didn't even have electric hair dryers. "The Gift of the Magi" was first published in 1905. It wouldn't be long before young American women would begin cutting their hair short as a early form of women's lib. They may have been inspired by girls who appeared on the stage and in the early motion pictures. F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" would appear in The Saturday Evening Post in 1920, only fifteen years later.
O. Henry prepares the reader for a violent reaction when Jim sees Della without her long hair. Instead, he looks at her with an expression she is unable to interpret.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Jim is a relatively minor character. He exists mainly in Della's thoughts and is seen only through her point of view. The story is really about how a young woman sells her hair to buy her husband a Christmas present. O. Henry uses the fact that Jim sold his watch as a surprise ending, but he does not give equal weight to the sacrifices of both young lovers. Della's anxiety about Jim's reaction is intended to highlight the contrast between what she expects and what really happens. This is "situational irony." Jim is shocked, stunned by the fact that she has shorn the long hair for which he sold his watch to buy her a set of tortoise-shell combs.
Della's fears are calmed when Jim tells her:
“Don't make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. 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."
The fact that he has sold his treasured gold watch in order to buy her a Christmas present adds tangible proof of his abiding and reassuring love for her.