The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry | Plot, Analysis & Detailed Summary

The Gift of the Magi” was originally published in 1906, in O. Henry’s second collection of short stories, The Four Million. “The Gift of the Magi” is probably his greatest hit, and displays all of the major O. Henry traits in abundance.

Henry’s stories are known for vivid caricature, narrative agility and sentimental warmth that shines through many of them. Their playful and optimistic sense of humor, and especially for their twist endings made him very popular in the last decade of his life. The Gift of the Magi is one such delicate story written by O. Henry that celebrates love and sacrifice.

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The Plot of The Gift of the Magi

  • It’s Christmas Eve
  • Della Young and Jim Young struggle to make a decent living in New York.
  • Della has only $1.87 to buy a Christmas gift for her loving husband.
  • Della after a struggle finally plans to buy a gift.
  • Della sells her long hair for $20.
  • Della finds the perfect gift to compliment Jim’s character.
  • Della goes home, after making small curls of her leftover hair, starts preparing dinner.
  • Jim comes home, and he and Della exchange gifts.
  • Jim and Della discuss having gifts they cannot use.
  • Jim and Della gifted each other true love based on the sacrifice of their most prized possessions.

Summary of The Gift of the Magi

It’s Christmas Eve, and Della Young, a young married woman, has only $1.87 to buy her husband, Jim Young, a gift. The Young are managing to survive on $20 a week, of which $8 goes to rent their barely furnished New York apartment.

The apartment reflects their impoverished financial status: it has a shabby little couch, a worn carpet, and a broken doorbell. Della tries to make the remainder of the money go as far as possible, shamelessly bartering with the vegetable man and the butcher. But she has managed to save only $1.87.

Desperate to gift the best to her love of life, “Many a happy hour … planning for something nice for him.” She wants to buy him something special, “something fine and rare and sterling,” just like her very precious yet humble Jim, not something ordinary or practical. Discouraged by her impoverished state, she howls, and sobs. This catharsis was important for her clarity of thought and implementation that was not easy after all.

She turns her attention to the long mirror in the apartment. She lets down her long, beautiful, knee-length hair. It is her most prized possession, “rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.”

After gazing at her hair, Della “nervously and quickly” winds it up. She briefly hesitates and sheds a few tears, but her resolution is made. She goes directly to a shop with the sign “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” She sells her prized possession her hair for the man of greater worth.

She finds a simple, dignified-looking platinum chain perfect for Jim and his ancestral pride, his gold watch. At home, she fixes up her hair, worried about how Jim may respond to the new look like a “Coney Island chorus girl.”

At seven o’clock Della hears Jim’s footsteps on the stair.  He goes numb after seeing Della. It terrifies her. She explains that she sold her hair because she could not bear not to have a Christmas gift for him. Besides, her hair will grow back very quickly.

As if in a stupor, Jim asks if she has cut off her hair. After some time he comes in terms with the fact and embraces Della. He hands Della a package and she unpacked a set of beautiful very expensive tortoiseshell combs she had seen in a shop and long coveted them. Della then gives Jim his gift and asks for his watch so she can “see how it looks on it.” Jim sits on the couch and tells Della that they should put their gifts away for a while. He then explains he has sold his watch to buy her combs.

Analysis of The Gift of the Magi

“A Gift of the Magi” has become a Christmas classic short story because it shows how the gift of love is more important than any material gift a person can give. Della Young and her husband, Jim, are the most unconventional yet unconditional exchangers of Christmas gifts.

The first sentences of the story grab the reader’s attention: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.” By the end of the first paragraph, the direness of Della and Jim’s situation is revealed.

The next day is Christmas and a special gift-giving time. Falling short of money on such a day is a sorry state of affairs and it immediately sets the stage for Della’s dilemma.

The story unfolds with the narrator revealing bits and pieces about the characters and their situation. For example, the narrator describes how Jim Young is merely known as Jim when he arrives home and is “greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young.” The narrator further communicates Della’s affection for her husband with the simple words “her Jim.”

Readers learn he is financially struggling and has had a pay cut. He, like Della, is wearing old clothes. He is quiet and somewhat vain, possessing a fine, inherited gold watch he would show off if it were not attached to an old leather strap.

The story ends with a classic “O. Henry double twist.” Della sold her hair to buy Jim a gold watch chain, making Jim’s gift useless. Jim has sold his gold watch to buy Della combs, making Della’s gift useless. This is also an example of situational irony because it is not what readers expected when they followed Della’s story as she went about her day, selling her hair and shopping for a gift for her husband. The expectation was her husband would be extremely happy.

They become “the wisest,” as wise as the biblical Magi. The magi were wise men who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger, this is indeed a fine compliment. What brings in the comparison is that they decided to exchange gifts for the little Christ in case of duplication. But Jim and Della are bereft of any choice. On Christmas, Jim and Della give each other a gift even more fitting than those the magi brought to Jesus—the gift of their love. Although they have “most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house,” their love for each other is a rare treasure.

The intangible gift they gave each other—their love—makes them the wisest people of all, and calls them the magi.