See Delia Young
See James Dillingham Young
See Mme Sofronie
Madame Sofronie, the only character in the story other than the Youngs, owns the local hairgoods shop; in the early 1900s, when this story was written, wigs were made of real human hair. She has a small role in the story, but O. Henry provides a rich characterization with only one sentence: “Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the ‘Sofronie.'” She is blunt: when Delia asks whether she would buy her hair, she says, “I buy hair” and brusquely tells Delia to take her hat off so she can see it. She offers Delia twenty dollars for her hair.
Delia is the wife of Jim Young. As the story opens, she is counting the money that she has saved to buy her husband his Christmas present, and she is reduced to tears when she realizes how little she has. Delia and Jim are poor; she has only managed to scrape together $1.87, despite saving carefully for months. But O. Henry makes Delia’s happiness in her love for Jim quite clear: “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.”
She is a pretty, slender young woman. Her long brown hair, when she lets it down, cascades past her knees. In one of several biblical allusions, O. Henry O. Henry notes that Delia’s beautiful hair would be envied by the Queen of Sheba herself. In a moment of resourcefulness and courage, Delia decides to sell her hair so that she can buy a present for her beloved Jim. With the money from her hair, she buys Jim a beautiful watch chain elegant enough to complement his gold heirloom watch—their only other material possession of any worth.
Later that day, while waiting for Jim to return home from work, Delia experiences a moment of insecurity. Though she has curled what is left of her hair as attractively as she can, she worries that Jim might no longer find her beautiful. When he arrives and appears stunned by her appearance, Delia again shows unselfishness, courage, and resilience, reminding him that her hair grows quickly and that she loves him. She entreats him to be happy, for it is Christmas eve, and she has sold her hair because she could not face Christmas without a gift for him.
Young Delia’s husband, Jim, is a thin, serious young man, twenty-two years old. O. Henry tells the reader what Jim is like, and also indicates Delia’s feelings for him, when he compares Jim to the platinum watch chain: “[the watch fob] was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both.” He works hard, not returning home until seven o’clock, and is reliable: “Jim was never late.”
Jim’s most prized possession is the gold watch that has been handed down to him from his grandfather and his father. Continuing the biblical allusion begun with the Queen of Sheba, O. Henry claims that King Solomon himself would have envied Jim’s watch. But Jim clearly values his young wife more than his gold watch, because he sells it in order to buy her a set of beautiful, jewel-edged tortoiseshell combs for her long hair.
When the couple discover that both have sold their treasures to buy a wonderful present—and in the process, made those presents useless—Jim reacts with gentle humor and the same kind of resilience Delia has shown. First he affirms his love, telling her, “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.” In the end, rather than bemoaning their situation, he smiles and suggests, “Let’s put our presents away and keep ’em awhile. They’re too nice to use just at present.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, O. Henry, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.