O. Henry’s ”The Last Leaf” is a short story about three artists and an outbreak of pneumonia in their neighborhood. This lesson summarizes and analyzes this story with reference to key plot points.
O. Henry’s short story ‘The Last Leaf’ is set in an area of Greenwich Village that functions as an artists’ colony.
The story focuses on the lives of two artists who share a studio: Sue and Johnsy (short for Joanna). The two met at a New York restaurant in May, and our story takes place in November.
We learn almost immediately that Johnsy is suffering from a serious case of pneumonia. O.
Henry personifies the disease, which is when an author gives human characteristics to something non-human, by referring to it as ‘Mr. Pneumonia’ and writing about it as though it can act like a human would behave:’Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman.
A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead. .
The Doctor’s Analysis and Dismissiveness
After one of the doctor’s visits with Johnsy, he tells Sue that she would probably recover if she believed she could. Since she doesn’t, the doctor gives her one chance in ten of recovery.In an interesting exchange, the doctor asks Sue whether anything matters enough to Johnsy to get her excited again about living. Sue responds that she has always talked about wanting to paint the Bay of Naples one day.
The doctor responds:’Paint? -bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice – a man, for instance?’This seems like a strange response to offer in an artists’ studio; Johnsy’s art is clearly very important to her. The doctor also suggests that Sue should get Johnsy excited about the ‘new winter styles’ (upcoming fashions), which also seems like something that will probably not interest Johnsy.
The Falling Leaves
Following the doctor’s visit, Sue cries for awhile and then gets back to painting. After awhile, she hears a sound coming from Johnsy’s room.
It turns out that Johnsy is counting the leaves that have yet to fall off the tree outside her window. Johnsy explains to Sue that she believes she will die as soon as the last leaf falls.
Behrman and Johnsy’s Illness
At this stage, we are introduced to Mr. Behrman, an artist who lives downstairs from the two women. Sue contacts him because she would like him to pose for a piece she is working on. We learn that Mr.
Behrman has never attained much success as an artist and has always been prepared to paint his masterpiece, which he has yet to begin.Sue confides in Mr. Behrman that Johnsy has pneumonia and is convinced that she will die as soon as the last leaf falls from the tree. Mr. Behrman finds this ridiculous, and tells Sue as much. Sue chides him for not being more compassionate.
Mr. Behrman explains that he will still pose for Sue, and adds:’Gott! dis is not any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away.’Johnsy continues to wait for the final leaf to fall, but one lone leaf continues to hold on in spite of a terrible winter storm that should have caused it to fall.
Johnsy waits for another 24 hours, convinced that it will fall, but finally comes to accept the fact that it is here to stay for awhile longer. This causes her to think about her own situation and to decide that it is sinful to lie in bed and wish for death. This is the point at which Johnsy takes a turn toward recovery.Unfortunately, Mr.
Pneumonia did not leave without taking a victim. Sue breaks the sad news to Johnsy that Mr. Behrman has suddenly died from pneumonia. It turns out that he had gone outside in the cold weather to paint the last leaf onto the tree.
As Sue notes, this explains why the leaf did not fall during all the wind and rain. Sue also explains to Johnsy:’Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.’Mr. Behrman’s decision to go out into the cold and help Johnsy by painting a leaf onto a tree is what ended up saving her life and costing him his own.
‘The Last Leaf’ is a tale of love, friendship, art, and sacrifice. The doctor cannot understand Johnsy’s passion for art and is dismissive of her interests and opinions. He ignores how she feels, and instead encourages her to take an interest in men or fashion.
Mr. Behrman, on the other hand, at least takes her seriously enough to address her worries head-on.This is the genuine empathy and friendship in the story; an act of sacrifice that goes against common sense, but that addresses Johnsy’s actual needs. When Sue calls the leaf Mr. Behrman’s ‘masterpiece,’ she’s acknowledging that the gift of someone’s life might not be at all what one has expected it will be. Although Behrman had probably planned to paint something that would have an impact on a large audience, he instead painted a leaf that saved the life of a single person.
‘The Last Leaf’ follows three characters over the course of several days: Johnsy, Sue, and Mr.
Behrman. Johnsy contracts pneumonia, or ‘Mr. Pneumonia,’ as O. Henry personifies the disease, and it appears that she will die. Johnsy expects to die when the last leaf falls from the tree outside her window.
However, Mr. Behrman paints the last leaf onto her tree, understanding that this act might cause Johnsy to recover. She does, but Mr. Behrman catches pneumonia from being outside in the winter storm, and it is he who finally dies.