Study Guide

Della in The Gift of the Magi

By O. Henry


Della: One Devoted Woman

Della is the loving, warm, selfless, and occasionally hysterical heroine of the story. Della's financially poor. She spends all of her days in a cramped flat, as "mistress of the home" (3). In other words, she's a homemaker. Della basically lives for one thing (or rather, person): Jim, her husband. She's spent a lot of the time leading up to Christmas just thinking of what to get him:

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. (5)

As you might gather from that, Della throws just about every bit of energy she has into being good to Jim. She's been saving for months just to round up money for a Christmas present. She has even endured the humiliation of pinching pennies at stores.

He may not be bringing in much money, but Jim is the cat's pajamas for Della. He deserves the absolute best, which is why she's so set on getting him the perfect present: "Something fine and rare and sterling – something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim" (6).

Della is willing to go to any length to achieve this goal, and ends up selling her one prized possession – her hair – to do it. Although she sheds a tear or two over the hair, really it doesn't seem to affect her that much. She doesn't even think it's much of a choice. She has to get Jim a present: "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" (28).

In fact, the thing that seems to bother Della most about losing her hair is that Jim likes it so much. She's worried he won't find her pretty anymore (though she doesn't really have anything to worry about). She barely seems to think of herself at all. That's devotion.

Is Della Too Devoted?

Della's so devoted, in fact, you might be a little bit bothered. It might be difficult to define Della apart from Jim: she lives for her husband. But it looks like her husband might live only for her too. After all, he sacrifices his watch – which is a precious object that's been passed down through his family for generations (and won't grow back) – to get her a gift. And given how humble their circumstances are, and how hard his work must be, it's not clear what else he would have to live for besides Della. So is Jim just as devoted to Della as Della is to Jim? It's likely that he is.

If that's the case, though Della and Jim definitely play different roles, they're in a relationship of equality, and equal devotion. That makes Della's own devotion less strange, and kind of wonderful – like it's supposed to be. Della and Jim's utter devotion to each other is the whole point of the story, after all. It's because of this devotion that both sacrifice their only prized possessions to get gifts for each other. That selflessness is what makes them wise givers – magi – and what teaches us the lesson about the meaning of giving that the narrator wants to get across.

Still, it's true that we don't actually ever get to go inside Jim's head and see whether he loves her as much as she loves him. So if you want to be skeptical of the narrator's heartwarming ending and be cynical about Della, we suppose you can.

Della's Hysteria

But you might still find one more complaint to make about Della. She might seem unrealistically emotional. The very first thing we see her do is collapse into a sobbing fit on the couch. And once she gets Jim's present, she shrieks in ecstasy only to burst into tears almost immediately afterwards:

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. (37)

Not only that, throughout the story Della just seems on edge, as if she were continuously overexcited. Do you ever notice how Della never just walks or turns, she "suddenly whirls"? As in "suddenly she whirled from the window" (8) or "with a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door" (11). Then there's the time when she "leap[s] up like a little singed cat and crie[s] 'Oh, oh!'" just because she wants Jim to have his present so badly (40).

Yes, Della's a little on the excitable side, to say the least. You might find it particularly irritating that the narrator seems to think that's part of what it means to be "feminine" (let's remember that O. Henry wrote this story in 1906). Still, in our opinion, Della's excitement is more something to make you chuckle. It makes her more lovable. Della's just head over heels in love. That inflates the importance of just about everything, and makes it rather easy to swing from the heights of happiness to the depths of despair in a matter of seconds. Can't we all relate to that a bit?

(As for Della's sudden eruption of wails over Jim's present, our opinion is that there's a reason for that too: it's only at that moment that it really hits her that her hair is actually gone.)