Have you read The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry? Here's a version of it on the intersweb: http://www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/Gift_of_the_Magi.html

I'm sure people had different ideas about gender equality back in 1906, but something about this story still bothers me. You remember the story: the wife wants to get her husband an extra-special watch chain for Christmas, so she sells her hair. The guy wants to get his wife some combs for her hair, so he sells his watch. Oh, what a merry mixup!

The story starts with a good cry. Della can only scrape together $1.87 to buy a present, so she flops down on the shabby little couch and howls. Then, the author gives us some very specific details: Jim brings home $20/week and the rent is $8/week. First, they're spending 40% of take-home on rent — that's too much. You're not supposed to spend more than 25-30% of net pay on housing. He mentions that Jim used to make $30/week, which is a much better ratio, but if you take a pay cut at some point you have to adjust and start living within your means again.240px-William_Sydney_Porter_by_doubleday

Still, the money is a little confusing. Della saved up the $1.87 by saving every penny and managing the expenses. She's upset because she thought she should have saved more. That's understandable, she's managing all the expenses and she wanted to put enough away to get Jim something nice, but where is Jim supposed to get any money for her present? If she's managing the money, shouldn't she be saving for both of their gift budgets? Maybe he's skimming something off the top before he hands over the dough, but you think O. Henry would have mentioned that in his careful accounting of the income.

Anyway, she cuts off her hair. All couples have a certain responsibility to each other. Certainly a relationship is not all about looks, but it's also not all about personality. There has to be some physical attraction for a couple to stay together. It seems a little insensitive that she would change a major aspect of her appearance in order to get him a Christmas present. This hair fell below her knee. Seriously, that's a lot of hair. You gotta figure that some of Jim's physical attraction to Della came from that hair. At least we should consider the possibility that this sudden hair change might be a big turn-off for Jim. After the act, Della looks like a "truant schoolboy," or a "Coney Island chorus girl." Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think that if Jim wanted to marry a schoolboy or a chorus girl, he wouldn't have hooked up with Della. In fact, after she gets her hair lopped off, she whispers, "Please God, make him think I am still pretty." So, she does consider that he might be pissed, but she did it anyway.

Also, Della got $20 for the hair. That's a week's take-home pay. She must have grown that hair for a decade and she sold it all for $20. Today, you can sell 35+ inches for $2,000, which is considerably more than a week's pay. So, not only did she potentially take away Jim's desire for intimacy, she also got ripped off. I'm assuming that hair a century ago is no less valuable than it is today. They didn't have nearly as many synthetic fibers competing with hair, so it might have been even more sought after. I guess they had more access to horse hair though. Who knows. I can't find a good graph of hair value by decade anywhere on the intersweb. If you find one, please let me know.

My final problem (or should I say O. Henry's problem?) with Della's choice is what she decided to buy. She gets him a watch chain. When Jim comes home, O. Henry says, "Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves." I can't decide, but it sounds like O. Henry is either saying, "Jim really needed gloves and a coat (dumb Della)." Or he's saying, "Jim really needed a divorce (from dumb Della)."

Luckily, when Jim gets home he says, "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."

What a nice thought. Kinda strange, but nice. Why would a shampoo make someone less attractive? And what part of her needs (or doesn't need) shaving? Odd.

"My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says. O. Henry is pointing out to us that Della didn't really give up anything afterall. She's probably only 22, or younger, so her hair will grow back in time for her to still be pretty in time for the Great War. Will Jim get his Grandfather's watch back? Nope. So, the woman is emotionally out of control, inconsiderate, financially incompetent in two ways (she keeps money from Jim and gets ripped off when she sells her hair), and impractical (watch chain instead of outerwear). Maybe O. Henry is just saying "Della is dumb," and not "wives are dumb," but this is a parable, so I think we're supposed to see Jim as every husband, and Della as every wife. The more I think about this story, the more I dislike Della and Jim. Was that the point?


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