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The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry: A Detailed Summary

Published in 1906, in American author, O. Henry’s second collection titled “The Four Million,” “The Gift of The Magi” reigns as one of the most popular short stories that celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Employing the habitual backdrop of Christmas gift sharing, the author weaves a tender tale of selfless love, the essence of which is timeless.

The Summary

It’s only “One dollar and eighty-seven cents.”

This opening statement leads the reader to some important facts:

  • It’s Christmas Eve
  • This meager amount (counted three times), is an outcome of laborious saving that has been strenuously secured by “bulldozing the grocer.”
  • Its sole possessor, Della, who is, by the way, one of the protagonists of the story, is visibly crestfallen, owing to the grueling limitations rendered by the sum.

Naturally, Della vents off by collapsing on the couch and howling.

The Nondescript living of the Dillingham Young’s

The occupants of a certain “furnished flat,” James and Della, had lived quite comfortably when James had been paid $30 per week. But now, his income having shrunken to $20, the couple are depicted as trying hard to make both ends meet; a fact that is glaringly highlighted by an impaired electric button and a deserted letter box. However, the author subtly points out that overshadowing all shabbiness, is the unaltered portrayal of unadulterated passion – Della’s routine calling out to her husband as “Jim” after his arrival, and his subsequent response by affectionately hugging her.

The Musings of a Loving Wife

Having ascended from “sobs” to “sniffles,” as Della looks outside the window of her flat to contemplate the dire status of her situation, the narrator hints at the obvious cause of her recent anguish. The $1.87 had been saved to buy a fitting gift for the person she loves most in the world, her husband, Jim.

Their Prized Possessions

The “two possessions” are – “Jim’s gold watch, a family heirloom, and Della’s “rippling” and “shining” hair. The narrator alludes to two important Biblical figures to emphasize the importance of these objects to the two characters. He states that if “Queen Sheba” had lived in an opposite flat, Della would have deliberately manifested her hair to simply malign “Her Majesty.” Similarly, Jim’s purposeful pulling out of his watch would have turned “King Solomon” envious, if the latter had been a measly janitor.

The Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Della looks into the mirror of a “pie glass” in her flat, sheds a “tear or two” and hastens to the store bearing the name, “Mne.Sofronie Hair Goods of All Kinds.” Having sold her hair for $20, she now vigorously searches the stores to find her cherished present. Finally, she discovers it, “a platinum fob chain,” that by its “simple” and “chaste” design, reflects its inner worth; a quality that is akin to her adorable Jim. Costing $21, the chain influences her to surmise various possibilities, one of the foremost being the fact that Jim would now unhesitatingly be able to check the time, wearing this watch chain, something that he had been prevented from doing due to his paltry earlier chain. Now, since her craving has been fulfilled, rational thinking regarding her altered appearance peeps in and she seeks to repair it by the judicious use of “curling irons.” Soon the “ravages” are somewhat managed, and she is left looking like a “truant school boy.”

The Revelation

It is 7 o’clock, and Jim is expected soon. Earnestly requesting God to make Jim like her new demeanor, Della eagerly waits, as Jim’s step is heard on the stair of the “first flight.” Jim steps in quietly, and stops as he glances at Della. His void expression turns Della “terrified,” and she proceeds to justify the reason for her changed image, with the hopeful promise that it would grow soon. Soon after, Jim overcomes his “trance,” and while he engages in fondling Della, the narrator triggers us to analyze a seemingly drab fact; “Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference?” He further hints that a mathematician would probably supply the “wrong answer,” and that this “dark assertion” would be explained later.

Back in the story, Jim clarifies that his stunned look had not been prompted by her cropped hair and he rather insists her to unwrap his present. Della’s nimble fingers tear up the paper to reveal an expensive set of “pure tortoise shell” combs with “jeweled rims” that she “had worshiped long in a Broadway window.” But they are futile, for her “tresses” are gone. After much crying, when she hands Jim her precious present, he, being too overwhelmed with emotions, falls on the couch and discloses how he has sold his watch to purchase her comb.

Finally, the “dark assertion” is explained. Attempting to emphasize the broader impetus behind gift sharing, O. Henry draws a striking parallel between the gifts of the wise Magi and that of “foolish” Jim and Della. For, it is love that inspires their gifts, dedication that propels them to be unselfish. Thus, the author poignantly claims that all those who give gifts like Jim and Della are unquestionably the wisest.

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