The Last Leaf is one of the most popular short stories penned by O.Henry. First published in the early 1900s, this was part of his short story collection, The Trimmed Lamp.
The Last Leaf by O Henry: Summary and Plot Analysis
The story, set in Greenwich village, revolves around the lives of two young female artists – Sue and Johnsy, who live together in a small flat on the third floor of an old house.
Johnsy, suffering from pneumonia, is critically ill. She lies in her bed without moving, continually staring outside the window, worrying Sue. Her prognosis doesn’t look good, and the doctor expects her end to be near, given her complete lack of will to live, rendering the medicines ineffective.
Sue tries to make Johnsy a bit more interested in things around her, but to no avail. Sue begins to paint instead but is soon distracted by Johnsy counting backward, looking outside the window. Sue comes to know that Johnsy was counting the leaves left on the ivy creeper, visible from their window. Johnsy also proclaims that the moment of the last leaf from the creeper falling would be her last breath.
Sue, worried sick at Johnsy’s statement, tries to show how absurd that thought was and to convince her not to think such things.
Knowing that her efforts did little to convince Johnsy, Sue rushes to seek help from another painter downstairs – a 60-year-old man named Behrman.
Behrman’s lifelong ambition was to paint a masterpiece, but so far, he hasn’t been able to paint it.
Sue mentions her concerns about Johnsy’s lack of will to leave and her belief that she will sleep forever once the last leaf falls. Seeing no sense in such imaginings, Behrman laughs it off but agrees to honor Sue’s request to pose.
Johnsy was surprised to see the last leaf still clinging to the creeper the following day and the following evening despite the storm.
Filled with remorse at her depression and lack of response to her friend Sue, Johnsy stops thinking of death and moves on.
Sue is delighted to see her having soup and combing her hair – something she sees as a sign of the return of her desire to live. The visit by the doctor confirms that Johnsy is well on the path to recovery.
Once fully recovered, Sue lets Johnsy know of Behrman’s death from pneumonia, painting the last leaf which kept her alive.
The Last Leaf: Review and My Thoughts
This story brought back flashes of Gift of Magi; however, I surprise myself when I say that I find this one more saddening than the latter.
The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is ready to go on its mysterious far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed.
While somber at the core, there are a lot of other flavors in the story. Consider the unnamed physician, for example. There is a certain weird comic relief from the unnamed physician that visits Johnsy,
I will do all that science, so far as it may filter through my efforts, can accomplish. But whenever my patient begins to count carriages in her funeral procession, I subtract 50 percent from the curative power of medicines.
If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in the cloak sleeves , I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her instead of a one-in-ten.
And then there is quite the strong emotion that Sue betrays, when asked if love with a man was what was root of Johnsy’s misery.
Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice – a man, for instance?
“A man?” said Sue, with a twang in her voice. Is a man worth – but no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.
Not once is there a mention of the families of either Sue or Johnsy. And as far as I can recall, not of Behrman either.
The girls seem poor and young but devoted to each other and the craft.
The old man downstairs: a drunk but soft-hearted; he is willing to go the distance for them. There is a certain purity in their emotion – otherworldly, seemingly embodying art itself.
O.Henry has painted for us quite the life of struggling artists. I marvel at how astute the painting is. Almost as good, if not better, than Behrman’s masterpiece.