Delia and Jim Young, the main characters in “The Gift of the Magi,” are a young married couple with very little money. Jim has suffered a thirty-percent pay cut, and the two must scrimp for everything. On the day before Christmas, Delia counts the money she has painstakingly saved for months. She is dismayed to find she has less than two dollars, hardly enough to buy anything at all. After a good long cry, Delia determines to find a way to buy Jim the present he deserves. As she looks into a mirror, an idea comes to her.
Jim and Delia have two possessions of which they are both proud. One is Jim’s gold watch, which has been handed down from his grandfather. The other is Delia’s hair, lustrous, shining, and falling past her knees. Before she can lose her nerve, Delia races out of the apartment to a wigmaker, Mme. Sofronie, to whom she sells her hair for twenty dollars. With the money in her hand, Delia goes to the stores, trying to find something worthy of Jim. At last she finds it: a platinum watch chain.
Once home, Delia attempts to fix her shorn hair. She heats a frying pan for dinner and waits nervously by the front door for Jim. When he comes in and sees Delia’s hair, he says nothing. His face shows no anger, surprise, disapproval, or horror— none of the sentiments Delia was expecting. Instead, he only stares.
Delia goes to him, explaining that she sold her hair to buy his gift. Jim has a difficult time understanding, but suddenly he snaps out of his daze. He draws from his pocket Delia’s Christmas present. She opens it and finds a set of combs for her hair, which she had been admiring in a store window for a long time. She now understands why Jim was so stunned. Delia gives Jim his present, but he does not pull out his watch to fit to the chain, for he has sold his watch to buy Delia’s combs.
The narrator explains that the wise men, or magi, brought gifts to the baby Jesus and so invented the giving of Christinas gifts. Because these men were wise, they no doubt gave wise gifts. Delia and Jim, the narrator asserts, have unwisely sacrificed their most precious possessions. Yet, because they gave from the heart, they are wise: “They are the magi.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, O. Henry, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.