The Gift of the Magi Summary

"The Gift of the Magi" is a 1905 short story by O. Henry about Jim and Della, an impoverished young couple who make sacrifices in order to buy each other meaningful Christmas gifts. 

  • Della sells her beautiful hair in order to buy a nice watch chain for Jim’s beloved heirloom watch.
  • When Jim comes home, he reveals that he has sold his watch to buy lovely combs for Della's hair.
  • Though Della and Jim’s respective sacrifices have rendered their gifts functionally useless, they maintain their good humor and decide to save the fine gifts for a later time.

Summary

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Last Updated on August 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

Introduction

“The Gift of the Magi” is a short story by O. Henry. The story was first published in The New York Sunday World in 1905, and it was later included in Henry’s 1906 short story collection, The Four Million. It has since become one of Henry’s best-known and most frequently adapted works. Set in New York City, “The Gift of the Magi” details young, impoverished Della Dillingham Young’s quest to buy the perfect Christmas gift for her husband, Jim. Wanting to buy Jim a fine gift that accurately conveys her love for him, Della decides to sell her beautiful hair so that she can afford to buy a chain for Jim’s prized heirloom watch. However, in classic O. Henry fashion, the story ends with a twist: Jim has sold his watch in order to buy a set of combs for Della’s beautiful hair. Yet rather than mocking the couple for their evidently pointless sacrifices, Henry instead implies that their lives are enriched by the selfless love they have for one another. 

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Plot Summary

Della Dillingham Young has one dollar and eighty-seven cents with which to buy her beloved husband, Jim, a Christmas gift. She is dismayed at how meager the amount is, as she has spent months saving. The Dillingham Youngs are very poor, with Jim’s earnings having been reduced from thirty dollars a week to only twenty dollars. Della’s dismay leads her to throw herself upon her “shabby” couch in her cheap and worn-down apartment. She reflects that she has spent many hours fantasizing about buying Jim a nice gift, one that would show him how pleased she is to be his wife. However, with only one dollar and eighty-seven cents, she knows she will be unable to acquire a suitable present.

Inspiration strikes when Della catches sight of herself in the mirror. She pulls her hair down and lets the long tresses settle around her. The Dillingham Youngs have two prized possessions: Della’s beautiful hair and Jim’s gold watch, which he received from his father. Della quickly ties her hair up again and, after shedding a few tears, leaves the apartment. 

Della walks to Mme. Sofronie’s Hair Goods store with a “brilliant sparkle” in her eyes. She asks if Madame Sofronie will buy her hair, to which the Madame replies that she will need to see it first. Della lets down her hair, and Madame Sofronie offers her twenty dollars for it. Requesting only that the Madame make the process “quick,” Della agrees to sell her hair. She spends the next two hours searching for the perfect gift for Jim and finally decides upon a simple but tasteful platinum watch chain. She remarks that the watch chain suits Jim perfectly, as it is understated but undeniably valuable. Once the chain is attached to Jim’s watch, he will be able to proudly show off his prized possession without being ashamed of the battered leather strap he currently uses in place of a chain. 

Della rushes home, elated with her purchase. She carefully curls and styles her shorn hair but is disappointed with the results, remarking that she looks like a “Coney Island chorus girl.” She begins to worry that Jim will be upset that her hair is gone. When she hears Jim approaching the apartment, she stands beside the door and prays that he will still find her attractive. 

Jim enters the apartment and immediately stares at Della with an inscrutable expression on his face. Della throws herself into his arms and exclaims that she has sold her hair because she “couldn’t have lived through Christmas” without buying him a worthy present. She reassures Jim that her hair grows “awfully fast” and pleads with him to “be happy.” Jim, seemingly in a daze, asks Della if she has truly cut off her hair and looks around the room almost as if in search of the lost tresses. Della nervously confirms that she has indeed sold her hair, but she reassures Jim that she is still the same person even though her hair is gone. After all, she sold her hair so that she could give Jim a nice gift.

Jim, coming out of his trance, pulls Della into an embrace and reassures her that he loves her no matter what. He then pulls a package out of his coat and tells Della that she will understand his reaction when she opens it. Della eagerly opens the package and is elated to discover that it contains a pair of beautiful tortoise shell combs that she had long admired in a shop window. Her elation turns to hysteria as she realizes that her hair is gone, but she tearfully tells Jim that her hair will grow back quickly. 

Eager to give Jim his gift, Della rises from her seat and presents the watch chain to Jim. However, rather than taking out his watch as Della requests, Jim instead sits down on the couch and tells Della that they should put away their presents, since they are “too nice to use,” given the couple’s current circumstances. He then explains that he sold his watch in order to afford Della’s combs. The story ends with the narrator commenting on the nature of gift-giving and generosity. Though the narrator describes Della and Jim as “foolish,” he also proclaims that among those who give and receive gifts, they are the wisest.

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