illustration of two people, a woman and a man, looking at one another in profile with an ornate hair comb between them

The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry
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Where do Della and Jim live in "The Gift of the Magi"?

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While the setting of O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” isn’t explicitly stated, clues and the tone of the story lead us to believe the story takes place in New York City.

The story begins the day before Christmas, in the apartment of Jim...

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While the setting of O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” isn’t explicitly stated, clues and the tone of the story lead us to believe the story takes place in New York City.

The story begins the day before Christmas, in the apartment of Jim and Della Young. Della laments that, despite having worked to save money for months, she only has $1.87 saved to purchase a gift for her husband. She soon realizes the only thing she has left to sell is her hair—the hair Jim loves so much. She looks at herself and worries about what her husband will say about her short hair. She alludes to a New York landmark: Coney Island, a well-known amusement park area in Brooklyn. She says to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl.” The Coney Island chorus girls were women who danced in the chorus line as a part of the shows at Coney Island.

The description of their second-floor apartment also leads us to imagine the couple’s New York home. O. Henry delicately describes the couple's home as having “not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.” The eight-dollar-a-week flat fits the couple’s tight financial times.

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Mr. and Mrs. James Dillingham Young live in a flat in New York City. There are two allusions to identifiable places in New York: Coney Island and Broadway. It was not unusual for O. Henry to use New York City as a setting because he lived there for years himself.  In fact, several stories of O. Henry's are set in New York; among these stories are "The Last Leaf," "A Madison Square Arabian Night," "After Twenty Years," "The Cop and the Anthem," and "The Tale of the Tainted Tanner." 

"The Gift of the Magi" is characteristic of the humorous and sentimental stories written by O. Henry. It is a Christmas story of a loving, but poor young married couple who live in a New York flat. Unfortunately, Jim has a lower salary than he had when they first moved into this apartment and there is no extra cash for gifts and such. Nevertheless, each is determined to buy a present worthy of the other. Della decides to sell her luxurious hair to a wig shop so that she can purchase a platinum fob chain for Jim's heirloom watch. After she looks at her shortened hair, Della thinks Jim will say that she looks "like a Coney Island chorus girl." Jim sells his treasured watch so that he can buy beautiful hair combs that Della has "worshiped for long in a Broadway window." These combs are of pure tortoise shell with jeweled rims that are the perfect shade to match Della's hair. So, while neither can use the Christmas present, they both receive the most significant gifts, those of unselfish love.

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In "The Gift of the Magi," Della and Jim live in a larger city described as being colorless ("grey") in a very humble apartment that lacks furnishings—rough or otherwise. Within the city itself are other grey elements in their lives: a grey fence and cat both figure into the narrative, reinforcing the drabness of Della and Jim's belongings. The doorbell and the mailbox are both broken, perhaps as symbols of how financially broke Della and Jim are. Their home is austere at best. The description of their home drives home how impoverished they are.

Although William Sydney Porter (pen name O. Henry), the author, does not name the city in the text of the story, readers can speculate the setting is New York City because there is a reference made to Coney Island, which already was a popular New York attraction when Porter wrote the story. Additionally, Porter lived in New York at the time he wrote the story and published it in a New York newspaper, so most biographers are comfortable labeling the setting as New York City. 

The term flat could throw readers off somewhat; it seems to be a little more "British" than apartment, but nothing else in the story gives it a British flair. Furthermore, Porter seemed determined to portray the lives of everyday Americans that reflected those he had known along the way growing up in North Carolina, working in Texas and New Orleans, spending a brief time in jail in Ohio, and finally settling in New York City.

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