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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What does "Sofronie" mean in "The Gift of the Magi"?

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In "The Gift of the Magi," the name "Sofronie" is used by a character to present herself as foreign and aristocratic, but her speech and demeanor suggest she is likely of Irish descent and not very friendly. The name Sofronie is also associated with a saint in the Romanian Orthodox church, indicating a contrast between the character's unsaintly behavior and the sacrificial love shown by Della and Jim in the story.

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When O. Henry writes that "Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the 'Sofronie," he is suggesting that this woman is using a false name in order to make herself sound foreign, aristocratic, and exotic. She hopes to be taken for an artiste because her customers naturally want wigs and toupees that will look realistic and becoming. The words "too white" suggest that she is not from some such foreign land as Romania, Greece, or Turkey, where more swarthy complexions are common, but, as her speech proves to the reader if not to Della, that she is probably of pure Irish descent and may have been born in Ireland or right across the river in Brooklyn. Madame Sofronie may affect some sort of foreign accent when she is talking to a customer, but she does not have to put on any airs with needy women like Della who come to sell their hair. The word "chilly" in O. Henry's description is not intended to suggest that the woman feels cold but that she that her manner is unfriendly. People who have to deal with small shopkeepers will often observe that there is a big difference between the receptions they get if they are buyers and those they get if they are there to sell them something such as merchandise, stationery, advertising, or insurance. It is as if many of these shopkeepers get so fed up with having to smile at their customers that they have to spew some of their ill will on the occasional drop-in who wants something from them. This dramatic difference in attitude is also observable by a person who buys something and then later tries to return it for a refund.

This is the line of Madame's dialogue that gives her away to the intelligent reader:

"Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Madame Sofronie speaks pure Brooklynese.

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Madame Sofronie is the owner of the hair shop and the author describes her as "large," "white," and "chilly". When she offers to buy Della's hair, she has no concept of how gut wrenching it has been for Della to even consider selling her hair, which is her crowning glory. But she loves Jim so much, she is willing to make this supreme sacrifice. For Madame Sofronie, it is merely a business deal, and she offers Della a only $20 for her beautiful hair.

Sofronie was also the name of a saint in the Romanian Orthodox church, so perhaps when O. Henry says Madame Sofronie "hardly looked the Sofronie" he is really saying that she "hardly looked like a saint." The author may mean it as a contrast - Della and Jim both made hard sacrifices for each other, and saints make sacrifices, but Madame Sofronie is no saint.

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