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The Gift of the Magi

About the Story

“The Gift of the Magi” is one of the most widely read stories of O. Henry. It depicts an interesting episode in the life of Jim and Della – a loving couple living happily together. Both of them have their unusual treasures that fill them with special pride. Della has beautiful and long hair. Jim has a rare gold watch inherited from his family. The couple has only a limited income from which they cannot save enough money to give costly Christmas gifts to each other. But they do love each other very much and intend to give a surprise gift that would fill each one with great joy. Della sells her hair to gift Jim a beautiful chain for his rare gold watch. She does not, however, give any indication of this to Jim and keeps it as a secret in order to give him a great surprise. Jim, on his side, sells his watch in order to buy a jewelled comb set as a Christmas gift for Della. He also keeps this secret from Della. Both of them thus, ironically part with their precious possessions to learn when it is already too late, that their sacrifices have gone in vain. Notwithstanding the futility of their gifts, the story brings forth their deep love for each other and the spirit of sacrifice that impels them to please each other. Although their gifts were of no use to them in the situation they had created, they were the wisest lovers and their gifts in the purity of their love could be compared to those of the wise men of the Bible who came to see Christ at his birth.

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Summary of The Gift of the Magi

Jim and Della are husband and wife who live a very humble life. The story opens with Della counting her hard-earned savings. She has saved one dollar and eighty-seven cents. She could save that amount by bulldozing the grocer, the vegetable man and the butcher. She counted the money three times to ensure herself about the amount of money. The amount was not enough to buy a gift for Jim on the occasion of Christmas. She sat on her bed and reflected that life was made up of sniffles and smiles where sniffles dominate. They lived in a furnished flat at $8 per week. It was a humble abode. There was a letter box into which no letter would go. Nobody could make bell from the electric button meant for this purpose. The letter on the nameplate had become blurred. Mr. James Dillingham Young’s earning was small-only $20 a week. Whenever Jim came home he was treated warmly and affectionately by his wife Della. Della wept and after cleaning her wet cheeks, she estimated that the expense had been greater than she had calculated. She was saving for months and wished to gift Jim something nice on Christmas. She stood before the pier glass and had a look before it. Something occurred to her mind that made her eyes shine brilliantly but at the same time her face lost its colour. Quickly, she pulled her hair down and let it fall to its full length.

Jim’s ancestral gold watch was his precious heritage in which he would have a mighty pride. On the other hand, Della’s hair was a proud possession for her. The beauty of Della’s hair could make the Queen feel ashamed of her jewels and gifts. Similarly, Jim’s gold watch could turn King Soloman jealous and pluck at his beard and make his treasure insignificant.

Della’s hair was an ornament for her and when she let her hair fall, it reached below her knees and made a garment for her. She tried to make it nervously, felt sad and a tear or two fell down on the worn red carpet. She, then, put on her old brown jacket and hat. With brilliance in her eyes, Della quickly went down the stairs to the street and stopped before a hair saloon. She asked Madame Safronie – the owner of the shop, “Will you buy my hair?” Madame agreed and after having a glimpse of the hair, told that she would pay twenty dollars for it. Della sold her precious possession and after two hours, she was keenly looking for some suitable Christmas gift for Jim.

At last she found a worthy gift for him. After ransacking several stores. Della found a platinum fob chain, a fit match for Jim’s gold watch. The chain was simple but chaste in design and its merit lay in its substance. She compared Jim to chain and found them equal in quietness and value. Then she returned home and showed prudence and reason. She didn’t want Jim to be angry with her and hence she made her hair carefully. She had a careful glance of her reflection in the mirror and critically analysed it. She looked quite young.

Jim was always on time. Della kept the chain in her hand and sat beside the entrance.

When she heard his footsteps, she became white for a while and prayed, “Please, God, make him think I am still pretty.” Jim was thin and had a sober look. He was only twenty-two but looked burdened by the family. He had no gloves and needed a new overcoat. His eyes were fixed on Della which she could not read. She found no anger, surprise, disapproval, fear in those eyes which she had been prepared for. She went to

Jim and told that she had sold her hair to purchase a nice gift for him. She bade him “Merry Christmas” and asked not to bother about her hair because they grow awfully fast. Jim could not digest the fact easily and asked Della why she sold it. Della in return, asked Jim affectionately whether he liked her just as she was. Jim did not answer but looked curiously for the hair. Della stated that it went for him and, with a sweetness, said that nobody could guess how much she loves him. Jim hugged Della. After a while he threw a package upon the table and said that nothing can make his love for her less. He explained that haircut does not matter for him and added that if Della unwraps the package she will learn why he got surprised at first.

Della, opened the package and gave a cry of joy but quickly filled with tears and cries. She found the set of combs which she craved for. They were beautiful. Tortoise-shell with jeweled rims and fit to be worn in the beautiful vanished hair. Nevertheless, she embraced them and with dim eyes and a smile said, “My hair grows so fast Jim”. Now it was Dell’s turn to show her gift for Jim. She brought the gift out on her palm and presented it to Jim. She said that it would match his wrist watch and asked for the watch. Jim did not respond and fell on the couch, put his hands under the back of his head and said that the gifts are “too nice to use just as present”. He told Della that he had sold the watch to buy her combs.

The story ends with the writer’s comments on the Magi – wonderfully wise men who brought gifts for the babe Christ. They started the custom of giving presents. The writer calls Jim and Della fools because they most unwisely sacrificet heir greatest treasures. But he calls them the wisest also because it was their love for each other which made them sacrifice their precious possessions. They were truly the Magi.

Short-Answer Questions

Question 1. Why does Della count her money again and again? What was her state of mind?

Answer. Della counted her money again and again because she wanted to make it sure that the amount was large enough for the Christmas gift she wanted to give to Jim. It shows her anxiety and disappointment at not having been able to save enough money for the intended Christmas gift for her husband. She tried her best to save sufficient amount of money but could not do so.

Question 2. How had Della saved that amount?

Answer. She had been saving every penny she could for months. She saved it by pressurizing the grocer, the vegetable man and the butcher into selling their things a little cheaper. She was excessively careful in using her money and completely avoided wastefulness. Notwithstanding her prudent way of spending money, she could not save enough money to buy a Christmas gift for her husband.

Question 3. What was wrong with the letterbox, the electric bell and Jim’s nameplate?

Answer. The letterbox, the electric bell and the nameplate were in poor condition so much so that their purpose for which they were meant was not solved. No letter would not go into the letterbox. The button of the electric bell was out of order. The letters on Jim’s nameplate had faded and become dim and could not be read easily.

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Question 4. What were the young couple’s proud possessions and what was their significance?

Answer. There were two precious possessions in which they both took a mighty pride. The first was Della’s beautiful long hair that could devalue the Queen of Sheeba’s jewels and gifts. The second was Jim’s rare gold watch which could make King Solomon pluck his beard with envy. However, they parted with their precious possessions in order to please each other on Christmas by presenting gifts.

Question 5. Do you approve of Della’s decision to sell her hair? Why?

Answer. Yes, we approve of Della’s decision to sell her beautiful long hair. She sold it to buy a chain for her husband’s gold watch. Her sacrifice shows her deep love and care for her husband. Although the gift proved to be useless for Jim yet it was invaluable and full of warm affection.

Question 6. What criteria did Della apply to select a gift for Jim?

Answer. She wanted to buy a suitable chain for Jim’s gold watch. She wanted a simple but rare design which she found in a platinum fob chain. It suited the gold watch in value and not merely in its decorative character.

Question 7. How did Della get ready to receive Jim?

Answer. She showed prudence and reason in welcoming Jim. She wanted to look as beautiful as she had been with her precious hair. She covered her head with small, close-lying curls that made her look beautiful. However, she was a little anxious about her looks and the response of her husband, Jim.

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Question 8. Why was Della afraid, as she waited for Jim?

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Answer. Della was afraid on account of her uncertainty about how her husband would react when he sees her without her beautiful hair. She prayed to God to make her husband feel that she was still pretty without her treasured long hair. This uncertainty was the real reason of Della’s anxiousness

Question 9. What type of person does Jim appear when we see him for the first time?

Answer. When we see Jim for the first time, he appears thin and very serious. He is only twenty and looks as if he is burdened with family cares. He has no gloves and needs a new overcoat. All this shows that he doesn’t have sufficient income for proper upkeep of his family.

Question 10. Why did Jim look about the room curiously?

Answer. Jim looked about the room curiously because he couldn’t see the beautiful long hair of Della for which he had brought a jewelled comb set and which Della had sold for a proper gift for him. Obviously, he was uneasy and anxious about the beautiful possession of Della which both of them prized very highly.

Question 11. What gift did Jim bring for Della?

Answer. Jim had as much love for his wife as she had for him. He had brought a set of combs for Della’s beautiful hair. It was made of pure tortoise-shell with jewels on each comb. Jim sold his precious possession, the gold watch, so that he could present this comb-set to Della as a Christmas gift.

Question 12. What was Della’s reaction to Jim’s gift for her?

Answer. As she opened the gift, she gave a scream of joy. She had wanted to buy that set for a long time and hence felt elated. After a while, when she realized that she had already sold her beautiful long hair, she started crying and wept for a long time out of joy as well as sorrow.

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Question 13. What did Della and Jim do when they discovered that they could not ‘use’ their gifts?

Answer. When Della and Jim discovered that they could not ‘use’ their gifts, they consoled themselves. Della wished to use the comb set when her hair grew again and Jim, with a smile, asked Della to keep the gifts away because they were too nice to be used.

Long-Answer Questions

Question 1. “The Gift of the Magi” is a well-knit story with a twist at the end so as to mingle pathos and humour. Discuss.

Answer. “The Gift of the Magi” is a well-knit story which produces an effect where pathos is mixed with humour. It is based on a special incident in the life of Jim and Della, a couple with deep love and care for each other. Della’s beautiful long hair is a precious possession for her. Jim, on the other hand, has a rare gold watch. Both of them sell their valuable treasures to present gifts to each other on Christmas. Della sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch and Jim sells his watch to gift Della a jewelled comb set. Their sacrifices became useless and futile yet, the writer says, they were the wisest gifts that could be given in their situation. The unexpected twist in the story is the situation their mutual love creates for them. They do this without either telling the other anything about the gifts each one intends to give on Christmas.

We feel pathos because both of them part with their precious possessions for gifts which turn out to be of no use. We sympathize with Jim and Della because their spirit of sacrifice, even if it produces a situation in which their gifts are of no use to them, reveals their deep love for each other. Both of them are troubled and feel pained not to be able to use their individual gifts. They are victims of adverse circumstances. In order to please each other, they sacrifice their treasures. Their gifts show their love and care for each other. At the same time, we find humour in the situation in which they put themselves. They create this humourous and awkward situation by not letting each other know what they are going to do. In an attempt to give a surprise to each other, both of them find themselves in a situation which they had not anticipated. It looks funny that they part with their precious possession only to find that the gifts they give to each other are no longer of any use to them. We can conclude that O. Henry provides us a mixed feeling of pathos and humour in the story by giving it an unexpected twist.

Question 2. Comment on the significance of the title of the story “The Gift of the Magi.”

Answer. “The Gift of the Magi” is a well-knit beautiful story by O. Henry. It gives an account of the life of a happily living couple who sacrifice their precious possessions in order to please each other. Della takes pride in her long and beautiful hair while Jim loves his rare gold watch. Della sells her hair to gift Jim a platinum fob chain for his gold watch. Jim, on the other hand, sells his gold watch to present Della a jewelled comb set for her beautiful long hair. Their sacrifices show their deep love and care although they were unable to utilize their gifts.

Magi were the wise old men who brought gifts for Christ on the day of his birth. They brought different things. Their wisdom lay in their special knowledge that Christ was divine and the King of Kings. Their gifts were of special value on account of this recognition of Christ’s divinity. Otherwise, they were ordinary things. The gifts of the Magi gave rise to the custom of presenting gifts on Christmas day to somebody you loved. Della and Jim show the same love and care for each other as the Magi has shown for Christ. They become like Magi in the spirit of love they show for each other. In “The Gift of the Magi”, O. Henry highlights this and brings out the real value of the gifts of Della and Jim. The title of the story, we can see, is highly appropriate. Its significance lies in underlining the rare value of the gifts they give to each other.

Question 3. Why does O. Henry describe Della and Jim as “the wisest” of all who give others gifts?

Answer. “The Gift of the Magi” revolves round Jim and Della – an affectionate and happily living couple. Both of them part with their dearest possessions to make each other happy. Jim sells his gold watch to gift Della a jewelled comb set for her beautiful hair. Della sells her hair to gift Jim a chain for his gold watch. Like O. Henry’s other stories, there is a twist near the end of the story that makes Jim and Della realize the immediate futility of their sacrifices. Neither of them could make use of the gifts they gave to each other. Della consoles herself by saying that her hair grows terribly fast and she could use the jeweled comb set after some time. Jim, on the other hand, asks her to forget about the gifts and adds that their gifts were too beautiful to be used.

O. Henry calls Della and Jim ‘the wisest” among those who give others gifts. They very happily sacrificed their precious possessions and felt neither worried nor disturbed by the fact of parting with their prized possessions for buying these gifts. Both of them value the love and care associated with the gifts. They consoled themselves and exhibited no sign of regret over the futility of their sacrifices. Although the writer said that they “most unwisely sacrificed” their dearest treasures yet he also praises them for the deep love they have for each other. It is this love which makes the gifts valuable. They are the wisest among those who give gifts to one another because they have the insight and love comparable to those of the Magi.

Question 4. Did Jim and Della sell their dearest possession to no purpose?

Answer. “The Gift of the Magi” is a beautiful story by O. Henry. It highlights an episode in the life of Jim and Della – an affectionate and happily living couple. Both of them wanted to see each other happy. This desire prompted them to sell their dearest possessions. Della sold her hair to gift Jim a platinum fob chain. But, to our surprise Jim had already sold his gold watch to gift Della a jewelled comb set. When it is discovered that they could not utilize their respective gifts, it looks as it their sacrifices were futile and apparently served no purpose at all. But actually it is not so.

At the deeper level, we find that their sacrifices show their deep love for each other. They did it only out of love. It shows that they cared for each other’s happiness. On realizing the value of the gesture they had shown for each other, they did neither feel bitter nor made any fuss about the loss of their precious possessions. The writer compares them with the wisest persons and calls them the Magi. Hence, it could be safely said that the selling of their dearest possessions did not go in vain. It, in fact, brought to the fore the feeling of love that bound them together and made them truly happy in their married life.

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