The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

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At a Glance

“The Gift of the Magi” key characters:

  • In “The Gift of the Magi,” Della is Jim’s loving housewife who lives in abject poverty in New York City.

  • Jim is a thin man of twenty-two who bears the burden of supporting himself and his wife on a meager income. He is known for his punctuality, likely the result of his glancing constantly at his watch.

  • Madame Sofronie is the cold, tough businesswoman to whom Della sells her hair.

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Della

Della, or Mrs. James Dillingham Young, a young housewife in New York City. Deeply in love with her husband, Della is distraught that Christmas Day is imminent and she has but a pittance to spend for a gift for him. Her husband’s salary of $20 a week leaves little after living expenses are paid. Although her love for her husband is enough to sustain her even in this abject poverty, not being able to honor her husband with a worthy Christmas gift is simply too much to bear. She is overcome with tears of helplessness, but they pass as inspiration moves her to a creative solution to her dilemma. Della’s one prideful possession in the midst of her humble circumstances, her long, lustrous hair, may be the means to secure a present that she can wholeheartedly give her beloved. Her willingness to sacrifice for him bespeaks the depth of her love.

James Dillingham Young

James Dillingham Young, Della’s husband. Jim is a thin, serious young man of twenty-two who bears the burden of supporting his wife and himself on only $20 a week. Times had once been better for Jim. In brighter days, he had brought home $30 a week. A drop in their income has not changed the fact of their love for each other. Ever punctual, Jim may be so in part because of the one treasure he possesses, a beautiful gold watch that had belonged to his father and his grandfather before him. Slightly embarrassed by its inglorious fob, an old leather strap, Jim often checks the time furtively. He sacrifices the watch to buy combs for Della’s hair as his Christmas gift to her.

Madame Sofronie

Madame Sofronie, the proprietor of the shop that sells “hair goods of all kinds.” A large, impassive woman, she offers Della $20 when Della seeks to sell her hair.

Della Young

(Short Stories for Students)

Della is the wife of Jim Young. As the story opens, she is counting the money that she has saved to buy her husband his Christmas present, and she is reduced to tears when she realizes how little she has. Della and Jim are poor; she has only managed to scrape together $1.87, despite saving carefully for months. But O. Henry makes Della's happiness in her love for Jim quite clear: "Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim."

She is a pretty, slender young woman. Her long brown hair, when she lets it down, cascades past her knees. In one of several biblical allusions, O. Henry notes that Della's beautiful hair would be envied by the Queen of Sheba herself. In a moment of resourcefulness and courage, Della decides to sell her hair so that she can buy a present for her beloved Jim. With the money from her hair, she buys Jim a beautiful watch chain elegant enough to complement his gold heirloom watch—their only other material possession of any worth.

Later that day, while waiting for Jim to return home from work, Della experiences a moment of insecurity. Though she has curled what is left of her hair as attractively as she can, she worries that Jim might no longer find her beautiful. When he arrives and appears stunned by her appearance, Della again shows unselfishness, courage, and resilience, reminding him that her hair grows quickly and that she loves him. She entreats him to be happy, for it is Christmas eve, and she has sold her hair because she could not face Christmas without a gift for him.

James Dillingham Young

(Short Stories for Students)

Della's...

(The entire section is 968 words.)