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All Della has is $1.87. The next day is Christmas. What to do?
Della collapses on the couch and cries up a storm.
As Della transitions from sobs to sniffles, the narrator takes the opportunity to describe the setting. A cheap flat ($8 a month, in 1900), which belongs to one "Mr. James Dillingham Young."
His name is even on the non-functional mailbox downstairs.
"Jim," Della's beloved husband, has had a wage cut – from $30 to $20 a week. The couple is going through hard times.
Hence the $1.87.
Meanwhile, Della looks out the window and contemplates the situation. It's now Christmas Eve. She loves Jim more than anything else in the whole world, and has long dreamed of the fantastic present she's going to get him. But that's a bit hard to do with $1.87.
Della turns from the window to examine herself in the mirror. Well, not exactly a mirror – a "pier-glass" – but close enough. She lets her hair down.
We learn from the narrator that Della and Jim have two prize possessions. One is Jim's gold watch, passed on in his family since his grandfather. The other is Della's hair.
Yes, Della's hair. As it falls, it looks like a "cascade of brown waters" (10). It's gorgeous, and long: it goes past her knees.
Della quickly puts her hair up again, and sheds a couple of tears.
Then she bundles herself up and leaves the flat.
She stops at Madame Sofronie's, store, for "Hair Goods of All Kinds," and runs up a flight of stairs to see the Madame herself.
Della asks Madame Sofronie if she will buy her hair. The Madame wants to see it, so Della lets it down. Madame Sofronie offers her twenty dollars.
Della tells Madame Sofronie to "give it to me quick" (17).
And the hair is gone.
The next two hours, Della is busy rushing about to find a good present for Jim. And then she finds one.
A platinum watch chain. Simple, but classy. Perfect for Jim, and a fitting replacement for the little piece of leather he currently uses as a watch-strap.
Since it's $21, she'll even have a bit of money leftover.
Della rushes home with the watch chain, wonderfully happy, but then remembers her hair, and starts the difficult task of repairing the devastation with a curling iron.
After 40 minutes, the now curly-haired Della is ready. She hopes Jim won't kill her.
By 7pm, Della has made the coffee and has the stove ready to cook dinner (pork chops). It's time for Jim to come home, and Della waits by the door.
As she hears his steps, she becomes nervous: will he still think she's pretty?
Jim comes in and begins to stare at Della. She can't make out what the expression on his face is, and is terrified.
Della runs to Jim, and explains that she needed to have her hair cut to buy him a Christmas gift. She promises it will grow back soon. And what a nice gift she bought.
Jim seems unable to get over the fact that her hair is gone.
Della assures him it's gone – gone because of her love of him. She asks if she should put the dinner on the table.
Jim returns to his senses and embraces Della. Meanwhile the narrator mentions something about the magi bringing valuable gifts, and promises that "this dark assertion will be illuminated later on" (33).
(Read on to understand what the narrator means.)
Jim throws a little package on the table. He tells Della that hairless or not he'd love her the same, but assures her that once she unwraps the package she'll understand why he reacted with such shock.
Della tears open the package, screams with joy, and then promptly falls into the depths of despair. Jim tries to comfort her out of her hysteria.
What did Jim give Della?
Combs – gorgeous, jeweled tortoiseshell combs for her hair that she'd wanted for ages. Now at last she has them, but no hair.
Once she's recovered, Della hugs the combs, promises again that her hair grows quickly, and excitedly holds out Jim's present to him (it's not wrapped).
Della asks Jim to take out his watch, so they can see how the chain matches. Jim just falls onto the couch and smiles.
Jim suggests they put their Christmas presents away. He sold the watch to buy the combs. Now, about those pork chops…
Returning to the "dark assertion" mentioned earlier, the narrator tells us that the magi were wise men, who invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Since they were wise, their gifts must have been wise too.
"Of all," the narrator intones, those who give gifts, Jim and Della were the wisest. Which means that they must be the magi.