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The Last Leaf by O’Henry – A summary and analysis

O’Henry’s The Last Leaf: A Summary

The last leaf, a short story by O’Henry is set in Greenwich Village in New York. It was published in 1907 in O’Henry’s collection, The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories. The author begins the story with a brief description of the settings. There are just too many streets at Greenwich Village and they take so many turns that it appears one street goes through itself quite a few times. Mainly painters inhabited the Greenwich village as they could find cheaper accommodation in this part of the city. 

The story centers on two female characters Sue and Johnsy – two painters and a third older male character, an unsuccessful painter. They all live in the same building. Sue and Johnsy lived on the third floor while the old painter lived on the first floor. The story takes place during a pneumonia epidemic.

Sue was from Maine and Johnsy from California. When they arrived at Greenwich, they met each other at a restaurant on the eighth street. Soon they found that they had similar preferences in terms of food, clothing, and art. Soon, they became friends and decided to live and work together. It happened during the spring.

As winter arrived, Pneumonia spread across the town. However, its spread was rather slow in the streets of Greenwich Village. Johnsy fell ill and lay motionless in her bed.

The author refers to Pneumonia as a cold stranger who touched one or the other person here and there with his cold icy fingers causing them to fall grievously ill. Once Johnsy was ill with pneumonia, she would lay motionless in her bed watching the wall of the house next to hers through the window.

When Doctor was there to check Johnsy, he called Sue into the hall so Johnsy did not overhear them. There he told Sue that Johnsy had very little chance. She could die because she had lost the desire to live. The doctor was afraid that he could not do much if the patient had lost hope and interest in life. He wanted to know if there was anything in particular troubling Sue’s friend. Sue could not recall anything important except that Johnsy wanted to go to Italy and paint the Bay of Naples. However, the doctor wanted to know if there was a man in Johnsy’s life. Sue did not know of any such man. The doctor replied that Johnsy had grown weak, and if she had no desire to live, half of his work was already wasted. 

If Johnsy again got interested in life and her future, her chances would grow. So, the doctor suggested to Sue that she talked to her friend about winter clothes. 

The doctor’s words had left Sue feeling sad. She went to the workroom and started crying. Sue felt dreadful for her friend, but she knew she had to support Johnsy in such a critical time. Therefore, she picked some of her painting material and went to the room where Johnsy was lying. Sue was singing all the while. Johnsy was lying with her face to the window, and she looked thin and quiet. Sue stopped singing, believing Johnsy was asleep. She started her work, but suddenly heard a sound and went to Johnsy’s bedside to check out.

Johnsy had her face towards the window and she was counting. She was counting backward. Sue looked out of the window to check what she was counting. There was only a wall outside the window and a tree against it, which had already shed many of its leaves due to winter. Sue asked Johnsy what she was counting. Johnsy replied that there were almost a hundred leaves on the plant a few days ago, but they had started falling, and there were only five remaining now. Johnsy thought that her fate was intertwined with the plant. She sounded hopeless and told Sue that she too would go with the last leaf on the tree. She thought the doctor had already told Sue that she had very few days left.

Sue was not amused at Johnsy’s childishness and scolded her for being so foolish. The tree had nothing to do with her life. She said the doctor wanted her to be hopeful and eat so she could get well sooner. Sue had to go to sell her painting so she could buy some things for Johnsy. However, Johnsy did not want her to buy anything. She looked and sounded uninterested. Another leaf fell from the tree, and Johnsy again recited what she had said earlier about the last leaf on the plant and her life ending with it. She was constantly looking outside. Sue asked her not to look out of the window. She could have shut the window, but she did not since it would have shut out the light she needed to paint. Johnsy closed her eyes, but she was again ready to look out once Sue had finished her work. Sue wanted to call Behrman, the older painter who lived on the first floor and was always drunk. She had to paint a man in the picture, and wanted to make him look like Behrman.

Behrman was more than sixty years old and had been painting for more than forty years unsuccessfully. However, he always talked of the last masterpiece he would paint before dying. She went to Behrman and told him about Johnsy and the leaves. Behrman was angry about why poor little Johnsy made a fool of herself for a vine and its leaves. He was not willing to come up to their studio at first. Sue told him that Johnsy was weak and sick, so these strange thoughts came to her mind. He, at last, got ready to come with her. Behrman thought that someone good like Johnsy should not lie as sick. In the end, he again recited his old promise that he will paint his masterpiece before leaving the earth.

They went together to the room where Johnsy lay. She was asleep. They went to the other room from where they watched the tree fearfully. After that, Sue set to work and worked all night. It had rained all night, and a strong wind blew. When Johnsy woke up in the morning to look out, she found that despite the rain and the wind, there was still one leaf left on the tree, which was still green near the branch but somewhat yellowed at the tip due to aging. She had thought that the last leaf must have fallen in the night’s wind, but it did not. However, she was not perked up. She again said that the last leaf would be gone today, and so will she. Sue felt sad and afraid but asked her friend to think of her if she would not worry for herself. What would she do if Johnsy was not around?

Johnsy did not answer. She was preparing for her last journey, and the last strands that bound her to earthly life were breaking, including Sue’s friendship. The day passed. The north wind blew again that night, and the rain beat hard against the window. The next morning, Johnsy again wanted to see the leaf, which had still held to the branch somehow. It was unexpected for Johnsy. This time, it seemed to affect her. She called Sue, who was busy cooking something for her. Johnsy was impressed by how the last leaf had held. She told Sue she regretted how she wanted to die. She was ready to eat. She asked Sue for looking glass and then told her she wanted to watch her cook. An hour later, she told Sue that she still wanted to paint the Bay of Naples someday. In the afternoon, the doctor came to check Johnsy, and after checking her out, he told Sue in the hall that Johnsy had started recovering. Given good care, she could get well again. However, he had to check another patient in the building. Behrman was ill with pneumonia, and they were preparing to take him to the hospital. His chances of survival were slim. 

The next day, after checking Johnsy, the doctor announced that she was safe now. Food and Sue’s care had worked. Sue went to Johnsy that afternoon and told her something. Behrman had died after being ill for two days with pneumonia. Two days ago, somebody had found Behrman lying in his room, his clothes and shoes wet and his body aching badly. Nobody knew where he had been on a cold, wet night. They had also found a light in his room that he had taken outside the previous night and some painting materials that included yellow and green paint. She asked Johnsy if she remembered the last leaf on the wall and why it never moved when the wind blew. Behrman painted his last masterpiece. He painted it the night the last leaf fell.

Well, that’s where the story ends. However, Behrman’s last masterpiece gave Sue the hope to live. Even if Behrman died creating his masterpiece, he kept his promise and let Sue see life in a new light.

Main themes in The Last Leaf

Hope never Dies

One of the central themes in O’Henry’s The Last Leaf is hope, and hope never dies. Behrman accomplished what he had been waiting for all his life – his masterpiece. He was never successful in his life, but the masterpiece he created near the end of his life inspired Johnsy. She had lost all hope, but the last leaf, which was actually a painting that the old painter made for her, gave her the hope and courage to live. Even she or Sue could not mark the difference and only knew when they knew of Behrman’s death and the material in his room. 

Behrman’s sacrifice

Behrman’s sacrifice is also a key theme in the story. He put his life at stake for Johnsy is because he must have cared for her. It shows he cared for the two friends and therefore put his life at stake. Sue was always around Johnsy to take care of her and, as a friend, fulfilled her responsibility for her friend. However, the old painter made a bigger sacrifice and left behind the gift of Johnsy’s life. He knew not many people would know about his masterpiece, but Sue and Johnsy will remember that he kept his word. Success came to him but not in the way anyone would have imagined. This is the irony in the story that he was not around to cherish his success when he had made his best art of life. However, the real charm of the story lies in its ending and how Behrman successfully broke the spell of death with his paintbrush. Johnsy would not have survived since she had lost all hope, but she did because she saw a leaf struggling for life harder than she did which gave her hope and delighted her. 

If Behrman had survived, the three would have sat together to talk of it and he might have created more masterpieces thereafter. However, life is just like that. In his death, he had left behind an important lesson for both Sue and Johnsy. You should never lose hope, and not wait for death to arrive. Who knows how much you could accomplish in the last remaining moment.

Friendship

Friendship is also a key theme in the story. Sue and Johnsy are not just good friends but they are like sisters. Sue cares for Johnsy as a sister would. Her care and support have also played an important role in helping Johnsy recover who could have otherwise lost the battle if someone like Sue was not around to take care of her and feed her. Sue is like the vine to which the leaf is attached and Johnsy herself is the last remaining leaf. The two friends do not just complement each other but fulfill each other. There is no man in Johnsy’s life but Sue plays the role of her family and cares for her in the worst moments of life.

Life and death:

Another key theme that. features in O’Henry’s The Last Leaf is that of life and death. Life is precious and one cannot let it go as easily. The story also teaches us the value of life and that we are here to accomplish something meaningful and be good to others while we live. While Johnsy is sick, she has lost all her hope to live. However, things suddenly change in her life when she is made aware of the fact that waiting for one’s death to arrive is not a courageous act. She looked at the last leaf and she saw how it battled for life. She has experienced one of the most important truths of life that one should not lose the courage to live till the last moment. She starts loving her life and the leaf reignites the hope in her that she would be able to paint the Bay of Naples again. In the death of Behrman too, there is a meaningful message hidden. Behrman too had not achieved anything meaningful in his life. However, in his last days, he has done something lifechanging for Johnsy and Sue.

Significance of the title in The Last Leaf

The title of the short story holds a special significance and reflects the central theme of the story. The story is about two friends and the sacrifice of an old painter. Johnsy had given up every hope, and she had started preparing for her last journey in despair, counting days as they passed and the last remaining leaves on the ivy plant outside her window. That last leaf gave her the hope of life and taught her the most valuable lesson. She should never let hope die inside her. The Last Leaf stubbornly held to life against all odds, and so she too could beat pneumonia and lead a happy life. If a half yellow leaf can cling as stubbornly to life, there was no reason for her to let go. The ivy vine too could have shed that last leaf but it did not. The relationship between the two friends is somewhat like the vine and the leaf.

However, the Last Leaf also has another special significance. If we look at Behrman’s life, he had remained unsuccessful for the last forty years or so. The last chapter in his life turns out to be the most unique. He sacrifices his life to create something that can change Sue’s life forever. Till now, he had lived an insignificant life, but he could not bear Johnsy’s pain. He could have left Johnsy to her fate and remained safe from pneumonia. The Last Leaf was like the last opportunity in his life to do something meaningful. The Last Leaf turned out to be a masterpiece because neither Sue and nor Johnsy could recognize at first that it was a painted leaf. Behrman had changed Johnsy’s life forever and, in doing so, his own too. Now on, he would be remembered for his last masterpiece.

One can easily draw a parallel between the title and Behrman’s last creation. He had promised that he would close the last chapter of his life with something unique that people would remember him for, and it came just before his death. The significance of the title also lies in the lesson that it left behind. For someone, it became an idea for his masterpiece and for another an inspiration to live. Behrman knew he had lived a meaningless and odd life. However, he and his art could still be of some use for Johnsy. The significance of the title can be interpreted in various ways but still, it teaches us the value of life and hope in it. Hope is key to life. If Behrman had lost hope, he would not have created the masterpiece. The Last Leaf is also that central strand that connects the lives of the three main characters in the story including Sue, Johnsy, and Behrman. That’s why it is an apt title that holds the significance of the story’s central idea.

Written by 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.

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