The wonderful story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry presents two characters who are madly in love. Their conflict involves wanting to give each other the perfect Christmas gift but having no money to do so. The lack of money is at the heart of the story.
How does the reader know that the couple has no money? Della and Jim Young live in a shabby apartment. The author’s descriptions of the apartment include the words shabby, little, beggar, worn, mendicancy---all of these used to describe the Young’s apartment for which they pay $8.00 per week.
Jim, the husband, now makes less at his work. His salary has been reduced from thirty to twenty dollars per week which does not go very far when that is the only money that is coming into the family reserve.
Della has saved all year and has only $1. 87 to buy Jim his Christmas present. She is reduced to crying because she has a present picked out but certainly cannot purchase it with only that amount.
Both of the characters’ clothes are described as being shabby. Della wears an old brown jacket and an old brown hat. To work, Jim uses an old overcoat; and he had no gloves in the cold New York snowy weather.
In order to buy her husband a gift, Della is forced to sell the one aspect of her persona that was admired by everyone---her hair. The hair dealer offers twenty dollars which Della accepts for her hair and she buys her Jim a watch fob for his treasured watch.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
"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. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."
On the other hand, Jim has to sell his most prized possession—his watch. He does this knowing that this was a family heirloom.
The ironic ending to the story re-emphasizes the love between the couple and their willingness to sacrifice anything for each other. To the author, this was the most wonderful kind of gift.
O. Henry was a skillful writer. He does not dwell on Jim and Della's poverty in any one place in his story because that would interfere with the dramatic development. But it can be observed that he scatters little examples of their poverty throughout the story, beginning with Della counting her pennies. Here are some other indications of poverty:
the shabby little couch
It [the flat] did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring.
the worn red carpet
her old brown jacket
her old brown hat
the old leather strap (on Jim's watch)
He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.