Main Characters in The Last Leaf by O’Henry

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  • Post last modified:June 2, 2021

A Character Sketch of Johnsy from the Last Leaf

Johnsy is the central character in the Last Leaf. She is a young painter who lives in a four-storeyed building in Greenwich Village with her friend Sue. During the winter, she falls ill with pneumonia. 

She is young and innocent but quickly loses hope after she fell ill with pneumonia. Once she is ill, she lies motionless in her bed next to the window and stares at the ivy vine outside. There are very few leaves left on the vine. Johnsy connects her fate with the ivy vine and believes she will also pass away once all the leaves on the plant have fallen. She is feeling depressed due to weakness and that’s what gives rise to negative thoughts in her mind.

However, the Last Leaf on the plant does not fall and inspires hope in Johnsy that she should live. The doctor had clearly told Sue that if Johnsy does not have any desire to live left in her, his hard work is going to be wasted. However, interestingly something that Sue believed to be a bad omen because it was making her friend lose hope, inspired new courage in Johnsy. The Last Leaf is a strong symbol in the story. It symbolizes hope, and the drive to live. 

Suddenly, as she realizes that even after her wishing so much, death has not come to her and the last leaf never fell, she is filled with surprise and energy. She thinks she too can fight for life like that stubborn leaf held to the vine in rough weather. Johnsy asks Sue for looking glass and tells her she wanted to eat. Sue feels good that her care has worked and Johnsy’s health improving.

Johnsy had always wanted to paint the Bay of Naples in Italy someday and she would live for it. The author has proved in the character of Johnsy how a simple ray of hope is sufficient to dispel all the despair and hopelessness in your life. Johnsy’s sickness is like a test she survives. Her friend’s support also plays a critical role in helping her regain hope. However, Behrman, an old painter whom she must have known as an irresponsible and careless fellow, also played a critical role in helping her survive. Her survival can also be attributed to Behrman since it was he who painted the leaf and hung it there so Johnsy did not know the last leaf was gone. It shows that Behrman cares for her like his own daughter and would not like to see her die. 

He sacrifices his own life to help Johnsy live. There is a unique gift hidden in Behrman’s sacrifice for Johnsy. Caring for others makes someone great. Behrman has left Johnsy a gift she would cherish for life. She would always remember that hope must not die and you should fight with all your will even in the face of death.

A Character Sketch of Sue (Johnsy’s friend):

Sue and Johnsy are friends living together in a building in Greenwich Village. The two share similar tastes in terms of dressing, art, and food. This is why the two became friends when they met for the first time at a restaurant on the eighth street. However, the story shows that they were not just friends but more like sisters. When Johnsy falls ill, Sue cares for her like a sister. She cares for her, feeds her, and encourages her to think positively. 

Johnsy has become weak and started feeling lonely and hopeless since she was ill with pneumonia. The doctor informed Sue that her chances of survival were growing thinner due to her loss of desire to live. It leaves Sue sad and she cries to herself thinking how alone she would be without Johnsy. 

The way she scolds Johnsy for thinking negatively shows she cares deeply for her. For Johnsy, Sue is the only support since she has nobody else to turn to for help. There is no man in Johnsy’s life and Sue knows it. The two are very close friends and share each other’s secrets and desires. Sue knew that Johnsy wanted to paint the Bay of Naples someday. However, she is deeply pained when she sees her counting her days and the last remaining leaves on the ivy plant opposite the window.

To an extent, it was Sue’s support that saves Johnsy’s life apart from the old Behrman’s sacrifice. The old painter was also influenced by the friendship of the two, which must also have motivated him to paint the last leaf. 

Sue was emotional about her friend and shared her dilemma with Behrman who painted the last leaf that Johnsy could again hope and survive. All the while and until Johnsy is fine again, Sue plays the role of an elder sister, caring for her, feeding her, and trying to help her gain her hold on life back.

While the story mostly revolves around Johnsy and her illness, Sue is a critical link and her only connection with the world while she is ill.

A Character Sketch of Behrman:

Behrman initially appears as an insignificant character in the story. However, towards the end, his stature suddenly grows and he acquires a significant role like one of the central characters. 

Behrman is more than sixty years old. He is also a painter but did not find success in more than forty years of his career as a painter. He mostly remains drunk and lives on the first floor of the same building as Sue and Johnsy. Sue is reminded of him while she is painting in her studio. She calls him and tells him about Johnsy’s illness and how she is being overwhelmed by sick thoughts that could ultimately ruin her life. This shows that despite considering him irresponsible for he always remained drunk, Sue trusts Behrman.

Behrman frequently talks of the last masterpiece that he would create before dying. People do not take him seriously since he has hardly accomplished anything significant throughout his life.

However, it is not mainly because he has led an insignificant life or because he wanted to create a masterpiece. It is his love for the two friends that he feels motivated to create the Last Leaf. His ultimate sacrifice near the end changes the course of the story. He helps Johnsy regain her faith in herself, and she again wishes to live.

Behrman is old and has no family. He goes to Sue and Johnsy’s studio and watches the last leaf from there. Later he is found ill with pneumonia and dies after two days of illness. Sue learns of things found in his room and infers that he had painted the last leaf. He never reveals before anyone what he was planning to do and ends up losing his life due to pneumonia. If Sue had known, she might have stopped him from going outside. She might have found his idea of painting a leaf silly. It is why Behrman kept it a secret and carried out painting his masterpiece without informing anyone. He hung it there the same night as the last leaf fell. 

For Johnsy, Behrman is like an angel who sacrificed his life for her. In the end, he gains the readers’ sympathy for his sacrifice and while on the one hand, his act might look foolish, on the other, it is also wise and solemn since caring for others and helping them find hope is something very noble to do.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.