Posted by: jockmackenzie | November 18, 2009

Short Story – The Gift of the Magi, Plot & Court

Give your classroom the gift of

The Mackenzie Middle Years Alphabet. Click here for the details.

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This blog entry offers the text of another classic short story (with thanks to Project Gutenberg), a sample of “Court” questions based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and a plot outline of the story. The pictures above are one other critical element in assisting students in their understanding of the story.

NOTE TO TEACHERS: I AM TRYING SOMETHING NEW. LINKS HAVE BEEN MADE TO SEVERAL DICTIONARIES SO STUDENTS WHO STRUGGLE WITH THE VOCABULARY CAN QUICKLY DETERMINE WORD MEANINGS. I HAVE EMPLOYED SEVERAL STRATEGIES. PLEASE GIVE FEEDBACK. ONCE I’VE RECEIVED SUFFICIENT RESPONSES, I WILL ADJUST AND COMPLETE THE NEW EDITION. Thank you!

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

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, 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 gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray 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 honor 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.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color 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 some day 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.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practiced hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

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 knew 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.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

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.

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 jeweled 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.”

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. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

I have cheated a bit on the example below and offered only possible questions – not answers.

“Court” Questions from “The Gift of the Magi”

Create questions and suggest answers.  (See the front side for assistance.)

1. Knowledge (2)

Where did the Dillingham’s live?

Define “parsimony.”

2.Comprehension (2)

Explain what “combs” are.

Describe Jim’s personality.

3.  Application (2)

Use the term “mendicancy” in a new sentence.

Show the court how a fob chain works.

4.  Analysis (2)

Distinguish between the appearance of Jim’s name on the mailbox from prosperous times to hard times.

Outline the events of the story from the point Jim got home.

5.  Synthesis (1)

How could this story be made more modern?

6.  Evaluation (1

Rate this story according to its importance to readers at Christmas time.

I. Introduction:



A. Setting:


1. Time:
Past X
Present Future


2. Specific time: the day before Christmas


3. Place: a furnished flat (apartment)


4. Mood (Atmosphere): sadness, despair


B. Characters:

Name
Physical Description
Character Traits

Della, Mrs. James Dillingham Young
beautiful hair, slender
thrifty, emotional, loving

Jim, Mr. James Dillingham Young
thin, 22-years-old
kind, thoughtful, wise


C. Antecedent Action: times had been very tough, Jim and Della had only two prized possessions – Jim’s gold watch and Della’s beautiful hair

II. Initial Incident:



A. Type(s) of conflict: Man versus Himself


B. Problem (in question form): Will Della find a suitable Christmas gift for Jim?


C. 1st event that shows the problem: Della is crying as she worries about only having $1.87 to buy Jim a gift.

III. Rising Action:

- the  events which begin after the Initial Incident that make us wonder about the answer to the problem.
G – Della looks in the mirror and gets an ideaG – Della rushes out to sell her hair and gets $20G – Della finds the perfect gift, a platinum chain for Jim’s watchG – Della curls her hair so Jim won’t be too disappointedB – when Jim arrives home and looks at Della, he is speechless

G – Jim recovers from the shock and hugs Della

G – Jim reassures Della that he doesn’t think any the less of her

G – Jim has a present for Della, two expensive hair combs she had worshiped for some time

G – Della gives Jim the watch chain

IV. Climax

Jim tells Della he sold his watch to buy the combs. Della realizes she has beautiful combs and no hair; Jim has a wonderful chain but no watch.

V. Epilogue/Resolution

Jim is not upset and says they should put their presents away for awhile. The reader is reminded that, like the magi who gave gifts to Baby Jesus, the greatest and wisest gift is the gift of sacrificing one’s own needs for the love of someone else.
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Responses

  1. i have some character traits of Della but i need some help with something.. i am writing an essay about 3 character traits of Della Dillingham which are: considerate, emotional, and appreciative. but i have to explain why. and also i have to have a quote from the story that supports it. please help.
    thanks,
    Kaitlyn Ashley

    • Hi Kaitlyn

      I don’t want to do this assignment for you so, instead, I will ask you to do some thinking. What would Della be like if she were the opposite of what you have suggested: inconsiderate, unemotional, and unappreciative? If you re-read The Gift of the Magiand imagine her in this new way, it should be clear when she is not being inconsiderate, etc. Once you have a better understanding of her character, you should be able to explain the “real” Della in your essay.

      As far as quotes are concerned, let’s imagine you have to find a quote to prove Della is poor. Take the very first line of the story: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.” Can you imagine having $1.87 (and 60¢ of it in pennies) to buy a Christmas gift for someone special? If you wanted to, you could quote more of the first paragraph to show how hard it was to save the $1.87.

      Hope that helps,

      Jock


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