Launchpad: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”: A Common Core Exemplar

crop from "Mary and Child, surrounded by angels"The people of America loved O. Henry, and so do I, once I found out what he was up to. Which I did when I read “The Gift of the Magi” – gad, how cleverly he told his story, concealing behind laughing language a profound love for the great masses of people who are frequently called the little people. —William Saroyan, “O What a Man Was O. Henry”

After Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, William Sydney Porter may be the most widely-read author in the world. You can find out why he bears the title, “Master of the Short Story,” on Ohioana Authors, which provides more on the colorful background on the author who wrote under the pen name O. Henry.

“The Gift of the Magi” is one of O. Henry’s most popular and beloved short stories. It has been rendered into film adaptations that are rolled out during the Christmas season. This classic tale of giving with O. Henry’s signature “twist-ending” has long been a model for later writers. Literary legend has it this story was penned by the author in the second booth from the front of Healy's Tavern on Irving Place in New York City.

This story was initially published in The New York Sunday World under another title "Gifts of the Magi" on December 10, 1905. It was first published in book form in 1906, in The Four Million.

Excerpts from the story are reproduced here to assist in your close reading of the passages. You are encouraged to read the entire story before beginning this activity. Questions relating to the text are provided beneath each section. Be sure to refer back to the passage or the full story to provide evidence for your answers. Navigate here for the complete text of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”


Excerpt 1

ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.

Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad. In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young.” The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far.

Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Questions

  • Consider the number of references to money in this opening passage of the story. To what is the author trying to draw attention?
  • Consider the alliteration in the second paragraph. What is the effect of this on the narrative?
  • What adjective (color) is repeated three times in the fifth paragraph? What is the effect of this on the narrative?
  • How does the drabness of this domestic scene contrast with the stated time of year?

 

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Excerpt 2

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its colour within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window someday to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street …

… She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Questions

  • Who is the narrator of the story?
  • How does the author describe Della? How does the author describe Jim? Why does the author repeatedly refer to them as “the James Dillingham Youngs?”
  • Discuss the analogies the author makes to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

[For background on these figures, refer to the PBS resource In Search of Myths and Heroes for an overview of the Queen of Sheba and The Jewish Virtual Library for a biographical entry on King Solomon.]

  • Why does the author include references to them at this point in the narrative? Are these figures from the Jewish Bible an apt comparison to Della and Jim? Why or why not?
  • Identify one simile in the story and describe its meaning. [A simile is a comparison of two seemingly dissimilar things using “like”, “as”, or “than”.]
  • Identify one metaphor in the story and describe its meaning. [A metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated things.]

 

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Excerpt 3

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you — sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

Questions

  • Discuss the irony of the situation. [Situational irony occurs when what happens is the opposite of what is expected to happen.]
  • How does the outer poverty of the scene contrast with the inner richness of the couple?
  • Give examples of the meager circumstances. Give examples of the rich inner life.
  • Discuss this passage from the text in the following questions: “Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.”
    • The author’s message here is posed in the form of a question. Would there be a difference in the couple having 8.00/week or million dollars a year? How does what this couple have together transcend the amount their weekly/annual income?
    • Legend has it the Magi, three wise men from the East, paid homage to the new-born Christ Child with precious and rare commodities of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. How do the gifts exchanged by this young couple on Christmas Eve differ from (and perhaps weigh in as more precious) the gifts brought by the wise men?
  • Is the couple’s love believable? Is the story’s ending happy?

 

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Excerpt 4

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Questions

Discuss the reference to "the magi" in the ending passage of the story. If necessary, research the Biblical story of the Magi. Several resources are included here:

The Three Kings and the Star (Archaeology Archive, Archaeological Institute of America)

Matthew 2 (King James Version)

s.v. Magi” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Reliquary Chasse with the Adoration of the Magi (from the NEH-funded exhibit Treasures of Heaven)

  • What does the author mean by “the greatest treasures of their house?” How would the meaning change if the author had chosen a different word and written “the greatest treasures of their home?” or “the greatest treasures of their marriage”?
  • What does the author mean by “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest?” Do you agree with the author, “Everywhere they are the wisest”?
  • Do you think O. Henry’s original title with the plural form of the word “gifts” (“Gifts of the Magi”) is a better title for this story? On the other hand, do you think the singular word “gift” (“Gift of the Magi”) is a more descriptive title? Explain.
  • What is the real gift in the story?

Optional writing activities

Write a persuasive essay discussing which partner makes the greater sacrifice in this story: Della selling her hair or Jim selling his watch? If you believe they are equal sacrifices, make an argument for that. Use evidence from the text in your essay.

Several themes in “The Gift of the Magi” are expressed in dichotomies. [A dichotomy is a contrast between two things that are represented as being opposed or entirely different.] Choose a major theme of the story that contains a dichotomy (self-sacrifice/selfishness; wealth/poverty; wisdom/foolishness, etc.) Write an essay that discusses the theme. Use evidence from the text to show how the author makes a case for one thing being prevalent over the other in this story.

Why did the author tell the story from the woman’s perspective? How would it have been a different story from the man’s perspective (or would it?) Rewrite the story to tell the narrative from Jim’s perspective. Include experiences, thoughts, and emotions Jim would have had that day leading up to the final scene in the flat.

* Note to the Teacher: This exercise aligns with Common Core State Standard English Language Arts exemplar text for grades 9–10. (Appendix B.)


ABOUT THE IMAGE: The Magi (detail) c. 526. Ravenna, San Apollinare Nuovo. Courtesy Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons.