The Gift of the Magi Questions and Answers

O. Henry

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Gift of the Magi questions.

Who is Madame Sofronie?

Madame Sofronie is characterized as a cold, tough, unsympathetic woman who is only pretending to be a foreign-born artiste for business purposes; she actually appears to be from Brooklyn. She puts on airs with her customers but not with a girl like Della, who is a seller and not a buyer. Madame Sofronie gives herself away when she says, “Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it.” This woman must realize that Della is feeling distressed and even frightened, but she deals with many such desperate young girls who need money and have nothing else to sell. 

O. Henry uses the episode with Mme. Sofronie to emphasize the ordeal Della has to go through in selling her beautiful long hair. It is a sufficiently painful experience to part with her hair without having to deal with a woman like the hard-boiled businesswoman who calls herself Madame Sofronie. O. Henry is not interested in characterizing hair buyers in general; he only invents this unpleasant character in order to highlight the sacrifice that Della is making. Della is like a shorn lamb.

Is Della pregnant?

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2                              

“The Gift of the Magi” is perhaps O. Henry’s most popular story, and as such, it has been the subject of much critical analysis. One line of thinking examines the story's title and the links to the three Magi in the story of the birth of Jesus. The Magi are not only rich but they are kings. Della and Jim are barely getting by on twenty dollars a week. The three kings give valuable presents, including gold. Jim has to sacrifice his watch and Della her hair to buy simple Christmas presents. The Magi in the New Testament do not give presents to each other. Most significantly, the Magi bring gifts to a newborn baby. But there is no baby in O. Henry’s story.

Or is there?

The general interpretation of the story suggests that the gift of the Magi that O. Henry's title alludes to is simply Jim and Della's spiritual enlightenment in realizing that their love was more important than material possessions. But O. Henry gives an interesting hint that the common denominator between the two stories might be a baby. Here is the one significant passage:

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family!

Della does not think Jim is burdened with a wife but is to be burdened with a family. Might Della be expecting a baby?

What is the message of "The Gift of the Magi"?

"The Gift of the Magi" is a Christmas story, one that still resonates today many years after its publication. In December, many people are thinking of buying presents and also thinking about spending money, so readers sympathize with Della's problem. We would all like to be generous if we could afford it. But O. Henry's story tells us that it is not the gift that is important but the thought behind it. Jim understands and appreciates all the thought that Della has given to his present. Della spent months saving up money to buy him something especially nice, and she also spent the whole year thinking about what she should get. She not only decided on a watch fob but then spent a long time deciding exactly what kind of watch fob it should be. O. Henry's Christmas story tells us that real love is always shown in caring more about someone else than we care about ourselves. Jim and Della really love each other. Della cares more about Jim than she does about herself, and Jim cares more about her than he does about himself. 

What is the significance of Della's hair?

At the most basic level, O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" is a story about a woman who sells her hair. This single image dominates the story from beginning to end. It is something that is very easy to visualize, and O. Henry uses it powerfully. First he describes how Della lets down her long hair and almost immediately pins it all back up again. The only purpose for that action is to let the reader appreciate how abundant and how beautiful it is.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. 

Then O. Henry follows his young heroine to the parlor of Madame Sofronie, a vulgar businesswoman to whom hair is nothing but merchandise. And after Della returns to her flat with the platinum watch fob for which she made such a tremendous sacrifice, O. Henry describes how she looks without all that beautiful hair. She looks like a shorn lamb. 

Is Jim a minor character?

People who have read "The Gift of the Magi" will always think of it as a story about a poor girl who sells her hair to buy her husband a Christmas present. Jim, the husband, is only a minor character. He is presented mainly through Della's thoughts about him. He does not appear until the story is nearly over, and even then he seems to exist only in his adoring wife's point of view. His sacrifice of his pocket watch is mainly intended to prove to Della that she has no need to worry about losing his love.

How does Della save money?

Women had to do a lot more shopping in O. Henry's day. There were no supermarkets. They had no refrigerators. So they went shopping practically every day. O. Henry says that Della has been trying to save money for Jim's Christmas present by haggling with the merchants she traded with. 

ONE DOLLAR AND eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.

As a woman without her own source of income, Della doesn't have many options when it comes to saving money for Jim's Christmas present. One of the few things she can do is economize.

It is interesting to compare Della Young in O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi" with Mathilde Loisel in Guy de Maupassant's famous story "The Necklace." Mathilde was forced to economize after they went into heavy debt to replace the lost necklace. About her only way of saving money was by haggling with the merchants when she went shopping.

She came to know what heavy housework meant and the odious cares of the kitchen.... And dressed like a woman of the people, she went to the fruiterer, the grocer, the butcher, a basket on her arm, bargaining, meeting with impertinence, defending her miserable money, sou by sou.

With few employment options open to them, restricted by both their class and gender, Della and Madame Loisel struggle to make a difference in their own financial security, and all gains are hard-won.

What does "The Gift of the Magi" teach us about true love?

From Della's point of view, her appearance is of less importance to her than her love for her husband, Jim. She is willing to sacrifice what she assumes to be her best feature, her beautiful long hair, in order to buy a present that will express her love for him. When Jim comes home from work, he is astonished by her appearance. She must look entirely different with all that hair replaced by tight little curls held in place by hairpins. But his love for her is of much greater importance than her appearance. He is only astonished because he has sold his watch in order to raise enough money to buy her a Christmas present: a set of combs for her vanished hair. 

“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."

Neither of them has really lost anything as long as they still have each other. As Shakespeare writes in his Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken....

O. Henry is saying that true love is not, and cannot be, based on mere appearance. Della loses her beautiful hair but gains something more important: the assurance that Jim truly loves her. And Jim loses his valued watch but gains something more important too: the proof of Della's love for him. No doubt both of these young people realize that they have been attaching too much importance to material things. 

A popular Irish folk song of O. Henry's time, based on a poem by Thomas Moore, expresses the same thought as Shakespeare's sonnet. The first lines of the song are the best known:

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly to-day,
Were to change by to-morrow and fleet in my arms,
Like fairy gifts fading away,
Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will....

How does Jim react to seeing Della with her short hair?

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.

O. Henry intentionally refrains from specifying the nature of Jim's reaction when he enters the flat and sees Della without her hair. The author says what the expression is not: It is "not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for." It is just "peculiar." O. Henry is saving the big revelation for a bit later when Jim will explain that he has sold his watch to buy Della a set of tortoise-shell combs.

Jim's "peculiar" look is partly attributable to the fact that at first he must think Della has decided to try out a bold new fashion in hair styling. He thinks she thinks she looks pretty! That is exactly the opposite of what she thinks of herself. This necessitates the explanation that she sold her hair to buy him a watch fob for Christmas, and that in turn necessitates his speaking the line that contains O. Henry's surprise ending.

"I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs." 

O. Henry knew that Jim would have to show some kind of reaction when he entered and saw Della without her long hair. But if Jim looked shocked and horrified, it would detract from the surprise ending O. Henry planned, because it would suggest that Jim had some special reason for expecting to see Della still adorned with her beautiful hair. So O. Henry intentionally describes Jim's reaction as "peculiar," which really tells us nothing. O. Henry can justify the use of the word "peculiar" because Jim doesn't understand what is going on. He may think Della has adopted an extreme new hair style. He is really not so shocked by his wife's appearance as he is dismayed at the realization that her new hairstyle has made his gift useless. He is telling the truth when he says he loves her just the same with or without her long hair.