Although many critics do not view O. Henry’s stories as first-rate literature, some of his many hundreds of tales have become classic. “The Gift of the Magi,” touching as it does a common human cord, is one of those stories. Not tragic, perhaps sentimental or a little didactic, it combines the themes of married love and selfl essness with the techniques of suspense and the O. Henry surprise ending.
Della Dillingham Young and her husband, Jim, on the edge of poverty but deeply in love, wish to purchase Christmas gifts that will surprise and please the other. The narrator focuses on Della as she tries to figure a way to find enough money to buy her husband a fine gift. Each of them has a prize possession: Jim’s is a gold watch that belonged to his father and his grandfather, and Della’s is her long, thick, luxuriant hair. Suddenly Della realizes that she could sell her hair for enough money to buy Jim a gold chain for his watch. The touches of realistic detail add to the poignancy of her sacrifice: She had only $1.87 but, with the sale of her hair, she receives the $20 to buy the watch chain.
At home, feeling shorn and sheepish, Della greets Jim with her school-boyish haircut. Because the narrator has focused on Della’s thoughts rather than Jim’s, readers feel suspense in waiting for his response. Not only does he tell her that he will love her no matter what she does with her hair, but he gives her two beautiful jeweled, tortoiseshell combs that she had admired. When Della gives him the watch chain, he suggests putting their fine presents away for a while: He has sold his watch so that he could buy Della the combs for her hair. The narrator points out that the two may have unwisely sacrificed their valuable possessions, but they are the wisest gift givers of all. Despite the moral and the sentiment—or perhaps because of them—“The Gift of the Magi” in its very simplicity appeals to a love and loyalty for which many modern readers, no matter how sophisticated, may still yearn.
Blansfi eld, Karen Charmaine. Cheap Rooms and Restless Hearts: A Study of the Formula in the Urban Tales of Porter Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1988.
Henry, O. “The Gift of the Magi.” In Stories, edited by Harry Hansen. New York: Heritage Press, 1965.