What does the phrase "the silent imputation of parsimony" mean? It appears in the first paragraph of "The Gift of the Magi," which I've quoted below.

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.

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    Steve Martin did a very nice adaptation of this story in his first book Cruel Shoes. In Martin's version, the wife sells her cuticles to buy her husband shinbone polish, but the husband has sold his shinbones to buy his wife cuticle frames. I can't remember if he touched on this aspect of the story.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 19:12

2 Answers 2


O. Henry is considered a master of the short story, and this excerpt tells you why. His very first paragraph tells you something about a main character and about the conflict.

Parsimony, or penny pinching, is generally considered an undesirable trait (or was in Henry's time). A young married woman such as Della would be responsible for shopping and cooking, and she would receive an allowance from her husband for food. The local merchants have no reason to think that Della lacks money. Instead, they would believe that she's driving a hard bargain ("bulldozing") to be unpleasant. They would naturally impute, or ascribe to her, this stinginess and disrespect. However, they wouldn't say that out loud to a lady, hence their silence.

Beneath it, however, Della's "cheeks burned." She is embarrassed by having to do what she's doing, and yet she has done it for some time and continues to do it. Shame is another quality that is viewed differently today. It was quite powerful in earlier times. Henry is telling us that she has motivation strong enough to offset her shame, and that will help drive the story.


In the story it is clear from the starting line that Del and Jim were poverty-stricken. Such was the extent of poverty that even the cents were in pennies. Henry mentions the pennies were saved cautiously by (Della) almost pressurizing the grocer, the vegetable man or the butcher. She literally overpowered them (metaphorically bulldozed) and saved pennies for small purchases. Indeed, she had to indulge in parsimony(unwillingness to spend money) though she didn't like it. Hence she was embarrassed while haggling over the tiny cents and the same reflected on her cheeks which turned red.

Now, imputation means accusation. So we can say that the close dealing implied obviously that Del was poor and accused her of being stingy. But the accusation was silent, meaning that neither she nor the shopkeeper voiced aloud that she was parsimonious. Her behavior in the market implied that she was very poor and she too was embarrassed by the silent accusation of parsimony of close dealings.

Here, interestingly Henry uses one's instead of Della's to possibly suggest the general condition of anyone performing such parsimony. (Everyone's cheeks would burn). Hope this helps.

  • It is very obvious that both of you have taken pains and spared your precious time for me.I have a lot of questions and doubts like this but I am not so good a tecno-wizard to make use of the Internet to seek help from people like you. Anyway, your elaborate explanations are really helpful. Hats off! Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 13:56
  • Thanks for the appreciation. I have been working on The Gift of The Magi for a decent amount of time now and surely look forward to more little questions. Feel free to ask. Isn't it what this site is about?
    – cinebird
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 18:47

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