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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In "The Gift of the Magi," what two possessions do Jim and Della take pride in?

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Jim’s most valued possession was his watch, and Della’s was her hair.

Jim and Della were a young couple who loved each other very much, but were not wealthy.  What they did have they valued highly.  Jim placed great importance on a gold watch that had been passed down through the family for generations.  Della did not have a personal item she valued, but she valued her beauty, especially her hair.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair.

The day before Christmas, Della is upset because she has only managed to save “[one] dollar and eighty-seven cents” for Jim’s present.  They only have twenty dollars a week, and she does the best she can but the money did not stretch as far as she had hoped this year.

Della goes to Madame Sofronie "Hair Goods of All Kinds” and sells her hair for twenty dollars.  Her hair is her most valued possession, but she does not value it as much as her love for her dear husband.  All she can think of is getting him something nice.  So she sells her hair and buys a “a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design” for his watch, his most valued possession (next to her of course), to show him how much she loves him.  It costs her twenty-one dollars, which is almost all she has.

Although Della is afraid Jim will think she looks like a “Coney Island chorus girl,” she is excited to give him the present.  She worries that he might not think she still looks pretty.  When he comes home—late—he is completely shocked at her appearance.  She is angry at his stunned reaction to her, but there is more to the story.  She finds out why when she sees the present he got her.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.

He is baffled by the absence of her beautiful head of hair because, just like her, he went out and spent extravagantly on a present based on the thing she loved most (other than him of course).  He bought her combs for her beautiful hair—the hair she just sold to buy him a fob for his watch.  But how did he pay for these very expensive combs?  He sold his watch.

The narrator says that these two are the wisest gift givers, because although they were foolish, they each sacrificed what mattered most to make sure the other was happy.  So they were wise fools.  This is the irony of the story.  What these two learned is that you do not need wealth to be happy.  The wealth they had was in the fact that they loved each other, not in money.

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Describe the two possessions Jim and Della were proud of in "The Gift of the Magi."

O. Henry describes the couple's prized possessions early in the story.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

Women in O. Henry's time customarily let their hair grow exceptionally long. According to O. Henry, Delia's hair "reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her." Few women would want the trouble of having such long hair today, but women in the early 1900s were usually confined to their homes, like Delia, and had the time to wash, brush, and arrange their long hair in bouffant styles which can be seen in the drawings of the so-called Gibson Girls by the popular artist Charles Dana Gibson. It was only because of the abundance of her fine hair that Delia was able to get so much money for it. When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" in the 1920s, it recognized the revolutionary changes taking place among young American women.

Jim's gold watch was distinctive because good watches were not common possessions in O. Henry's day. A dependable watch had to be big and heavy. Jim's watch must have been exceptionally well made if it passed from his grandfather to his father and to him and still kept good time. Wristwatches were unknown because watch makers were unable to make time pieces with such small inner mechanisms. Women did not usually own watches. There were many more clocks on office buildings and churches, and big free-standing clocks are still to be seen on some downtown sidewalks in cities (although not many of them show the right time). Big Ben in London is the world's most famous clock. Most people had to rely on these public clocks to tell the time.

O. Henry focuses on Delia's hair and the torment she went through before and after selling it. The irony in the story mainly has to do with the fact that she sacrificed her beautiful hair in order to buy a watch fob for Jim's watch, only to find that he had sold it to buy combs for her long hair. But the emphasis throughout the story is on Delia's love and Delia's sacrifice.

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