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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The Gift of the Magi Characters

The main characters in “The Gift of the Magi” are Della and Jim Dillingham Young.

  • Della Dillingham Young is a young housewife. Though Della and her husband, Jim, are poor, Della still wants to buy him a nice gift, so she sells her beautiful hair to earn money. 
  • Jim Dillingham Young is Della’s husband, who bears the burden of supporting himself and his wife on a meager income. He sells his prized heirloom watch in order to afford a set of beautiful combs for Della.

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Characters

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Della Dillingham Young

Della Dillingham Young is a young housewife who lives in a small apartment in New York City with her husband, Jim. Della has been carefully saving money in order to buy a Christmas gift for Jim, but she is dismayed to discover that she has only collected one dollar and eighty-seven cents. Determined to buy Jim a gift that is worthy of their love, Della decides to sell her beautiful hair. This represents a great sacrifice for Della, as her hair is the only valuable thing she owns. However, rather than confronting the loss of her hair with sadness or regret, Della insteads “trip[s] by on rosy wings” as she searches out the perfect gift for Jim. Her only worry in the aftermath of selling her hair is that Jim will no longer find her attractive, but she is quick to reassure the both of them that her hair grows “awfully quick.”

Della is the protagonist of the story, and the narrative follows her point of view. As such, readers are given access to her oftentimes tumultuous emotions, ranging from grief to joy to fear. Her “feminine change to hysterical tears and wails” in the aftermath of receiving the combs encapsulates her predilection for dramatics. However, though she is prone to outbursts of emotion, Della also proves to be both resourceful and optimistic. After lamenting her meager savings with which to purchase Jim’s gift, she arrives at the creative solution of selling her hair. The narrator also emphasizes her “bright and ardent spirit” as she presents Jim with his new watch chain, her smile undimmed by the realization that she cannot put her new combs to use just yet. Della loves Jim deeply, and her selfless decision to sacrifice for hair in order to buy him a gift grants her, at least in the narrator’s eyes, a wisdom on par with the biblical Magi. For the Dillingham Youngs, misfortune and poverty are temporary states; though their gifts are functionally useless at present, Della knows that her hair will someday grow back, representing the young couple’s shared hopes for their future. 

James “Jim” Dillingham Young

James “Jim” Dillingham Young is Della’s husband. Though he is only twenty-two years old, he is very thin and serious-looking, troubled by poverty and “burdened with a family.” In spite of his circumstances, however, he has a happy and loving relationship with his wife. Together, they have turned their eight-dollar-a-week apartment into a sanctuary of warmth and hope. Jim works long hours for minimal pay, but Della always greets him with an affectionate hug when he arrives home. In turn, Jim does his best to provide for Della, and he even willingly sacrifices his prized watch in order to buy Della a beautiful set of combs for her hair. 

Della compares Jim to the platinum watch chain by indicating that both possess “quietness and value.” Jim is a simple, hardworking man who forgoes “meretricious ornamentation” in favor of understated goodness. His physical circumstances are unimpressive, but his relationship with Della is warm and loving, and Della is able to see his value despite his understated demeanor. 

Jim’s decision to sell his watch in order to buy Della the combs suggests that his love for her transcends their material circumstances. Rather than using the money he gets for selling the watch to buy something practical, like the new coat or gloves that he needs, Jim buys a purely ornamental gift solely because it will make Della happy. Furthermore, despite his initial surprise at finding Della’s hair gone, he is quick to reassure her that his love is not so fickle as to be deterred by a change in her appearance. His selfless intentions and unconditional affection mirror those of Della, and the good humor with which Jim greets the revelation that he and Della have cancelled out each other’s gifts reinforces the purity of their love.

Madame Sofronie

Madame Sofronie is the proprietress of a hair goods store. She agrees to buy Della’s hair for twenty dollars, enabling Della to buy a nice gift for Jim. Madame Sofronie’s blunt, “chilly” demeanor contrasts with Della’s earnestness and warmth. The Madame represents the harsh realities of living in a postindustrial society, where things are often judged based solely on their monetary value. Though twenty dollars was not an insignificant amount of money at the time that O. Henry was writing, the true worth of Della’s hair, and her sacrifice of it, cannot be defined in monetary terms. 

The Narrator

Though the narrator does not appear as a character in the story, his affectionate regard for Della and Jim is an active influence on how the narrative is presented. He goes so far as to preserve the modesty of the young couple by encouraging the reader to “regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction” as Della and Jim embrace. It is through this affectionate lens that the narrator portrays the Dillignham Youngs, exalting the perhaps naive wisdom of those who give selflessly and offering a didactic interpretation of the story’s events.

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