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 kind of life do Jim and Della lead in "The Gift of the Magi"?

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Jim earns only twenty dollars a week, and their flat costs eight dollars a week. They must lead very quiet lives. But, at this point in their young married lives at least, they are still very much in love.

But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Jim must spend most of his time working. In these horse-and-buggy days, most people worked a six-day week, and the hours were longer than the contemporary standard of eight hours per day. We see that Jim does not get home until after seven o'clock on the story day. Della notices that he looks "thin and very serious."

He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

No doubt he goes to bed early and has to get up early when the alarm clock summons him to another day's office drudgery. He probably does little more than loaf when he has free time. No doubt they go for walks on Sundays, but they have no extra money to spend on minor treats.

Della's life is thoroughly domestic. The biggest event in her day is going shopping. And she probably has to shop for food every day because it was not easy to store fresh food, and canned and packaged foods were not nearly so abundant as they are now. She must spend most of her time in their flat. She would have to do the cooking, housekeeping, and laundry. In those days most women had to wash everything in tubs, and they used scrub boards regularly. Nowadays it is rare to see such a thing as a scrub board. And of course Della must spend a lot of time caring for her long, long hair. It must take her hours to wash it and get it dried--but she probably enjoys this operation, since she is so proud of her hair.

Most people led much simpler lives in O. Henry's day. They had lower expectations. Radio and television, of course, did not exist. Entertainment was all live entertainment. There were no movies, only stage plays and vaudeville. They might splurge and go to a show occasionally. They are obviously leading pretty straightened lives if Della has to sell her hair and Jim has to sell his watch in order to buy each other Christmas presents. Poverty haunts the story, as it often does in the stories of O. Henry, including "The Last Leaf," "The Furnished Room," and "The Cop and the Anthem."

There is a suggestion, easy to miss, that Della is pregnant. When Jim gets home, Della notices his appearance and thinks to herself:

Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! 

Doesn't this suggest very strongly that she is expecting a baby but hasn't told her husband yet? If she only meant that she herself was a burden, she would have said, "...and to be burdened with a wife!" It would hardly be surprising that she should be pregnant, what with all the hugging and kissing going on in that flat.

It seems possible that O. Henry intended to write a Christmas story that paralleled the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem but decided against it because he was afraid some of his readers might be offended. They might get the idea that he was suggesting that Della's baby was supposed to represent the promised second coming of Christ. His ending with his comparison between the Youngs and the biblical magi seems like a bit of a stretch. The magi did not give presents to each other, and they certainly weren't poor; they were all kings. But O. Henry was undoubtedly under deadline pressure and he did a lot of his writing in saloons. He was reputed to drink two quarts of whiskey a day. 

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Where do Della and Jim live in "The Gift of the Magi"?

While the setting of O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” isn’t explicitly stated, clues and the tone of the story lead us to believe the story takes place in New York City.

The story begins the day before Christmas, in the apartment of Jim and Della Young. Della laments that, despite having worked to save money for months, she only has $1.87 saved to purchase a gift for her husband. She soon realizes the only thing she has left to sell is her hair—the hair Jim loves so much. She looks at herself and worries about what her husband will say about her short hair. She alludes to a New York landmark: Coney Island, a well-known amusement park area in Brooklyn. She says to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl.” The Coney Island chorus girls were women who danced in the chorus line as a part of the shows at Coney Island.

The description of their second-floor apartment also leads us to imagine the couple’s New York home. O. Henry delicately describes the couple's home as having “not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.” The eight-dollar-a-week flat fits the couple’s tight financial times.

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Where do Della and Jim live in "The Gift of the Magi"?

Mr. and Mrs. James Dillingham Young live in a flat in New York City. There are two allusions to identifiable places in New York: Coney Island and Broadway. It was not unusual for O. Henry to use New York City as a setting because he lived there for years himself.  In fact, several stories of O. Henry's are set in New York; among these stories are "The Last Leaf," "A Madison Square Arabian Night," "After Twenty Years," "The Cop and the Anthem," and "The Tale of the Tainted Tanner." 

"The Gift of the Magi" is characteristic of the humorous and sentimental stories written by O. Henry. It is a Christmas story of a loving, but poor young married couple who live in a New York flat. Unfortunately, Jim has a lower salary than he had when they first moved into this apartment and there is no extra cash for gifts and such. Nevertheless, each is determined to buy a present worthy of the other. Della decides to sell her luxurious hair to a wig shop so that she can purchase a platinum fob chain for Jim's heirloom watch. After she looks at her shortened hair, Della thinks Jim will say that she looks "like a Coney Island chorus girl." Jim sells his treasured watch so that he can buy beautiful hair combs that Della has "worshiped for long in a Broadway window." These combs are of pure tortoise shell with jeweled rims that are the perfect shade to match Della's hair. So, while neither can use the Christmas present, they both receive the most significant gifts, those of unselfish love.

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Where do Della and Jim live in "The Gift of the Magi"?

In "The Gift of the Magi," Della and Jim live in a larger city described as being colorless ("grey") in a very humble apartment that lacks furnishings—rough or otherwise. Within the city itself are other grey elements in their lives: a grey fence and cat both figure into the narrative, reinforcing the drabness of Della and Jim's belongings. The doorbell and the mailbox are both broken, perhaps as symbols of how financially broke Della and Jim are. Their home is austere at best. The description of their home drives home how impoverished they are.

Although William Sydney Porter (pen name O. Henry), the author, does not name the city in the text of the story, readers can speculate the setting is New York City because there is a reference made to Coney Island, which already was a popular New York attraction when Porter wrote the story. Additionally, Porter lived in New York at the time he wrote the story and published it in a New York newspaper, so most biographers are comfortable labeling the setting as New York City. 

The term flat could throw readers off somewhat; it seems to be a little more "British" than apartment, but nothing else in the story gives it a British flair. Furthermore, Porter seemed determined to portray the lives of everyday Americans that reflected those he had known along the way growing up in North Carolina, working in Texas and New Orleans, spending a brief time in jail in Ohio, and finally settling in New York City.

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