In The Last Leaf by O. Henry we have the theme of commitment, sacrifice, friendship, compassion, hope and dedication. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Henry may be exploring the theme of commitment. Throughout the story there is a sense that all three painters mentioned Sue, Johnsy and Behrman are committed to something. Sue has a piece to draw and is working on it throughout the story, while Behrman though he hasn’t completed his masterpiece remains focused on it. And Johnsy though not painting is committed to dying as soon as the last ivy leaf falls from the vine. By highlighting each characters commitment Henry may also be suggesting that those who live their lives artistically are driven or focused. Unlike the majority of people who may live their lives working nine to five and forget about work as soon as they clock out.
Henry also appears to be exploring the theme of friendship. There is the obvious friendship between Sue and Johnsy with Sue remaining focused on helping Johnsy get better. Also Behrman, though when first introduced to the reader comes across as being a cantankerous old man, he is in reality fond of both Sue and Johnsy. This fondness is probably based on Behrman’s understanding of how difficult life is for an artist. The sacrifices that they have to make in order to pursue their work. It is only at the end of the story that the reader realises just how committed or fond of Johnsy (and Sue) Behrman actually is when he sacrifices his own life in order to save Johnsy’s.
It is also noticeable that Johnsy very early on in the story gives up any hope of living or beating pneumonia. This lack of hope in many ways is mirrored by the doctor. He remains practical, aware that there is nothing he can do for Johnsy unless she herself also makes some form of commitment (to stay alive). He feels that rather than focusing on the leaves on the vine it would be more practical for her to focus on her recovery from pneumonia. Though it is also possible that Henry may have deliberately set the story with one medical doctor and three artists in it to highlight to the reader the differences in interpretation of all three (medical versus artist) when it comes to defining practical. Which may further highlight the high levels of commitment (to dying) that are being displayed by Johnsy. Just as all three artists are committed to giving their all for their art, likewise Johnsy is committed to dying.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. Each leaf that Johnsy sees falling from the vine in many ways leads her into further despair. However when Behrman paints the one leaf it symbolises hope for Johnsy. Something that is noticeable when her health improves on her discovery that the last leaf has not fallen. The weather itself may also be symbolic as Henry may be using the weather to highlight how for some people (Behrman) life is not as easy as it is for others. It is possible that Henry is suggesting that artists, though many might say they make life difficult for themselves, this may not necessarily be the case. Rather as previously mentioned artists are driven by their art unlike the majority of people who will work and then go home. An artist’s home is their work. It is also noticeable that Henry makes a comparison between the worlds of Art and Literature in the story. ‘Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to Literature.’ This line may be important as by comparing both the world of Art and Literature to each other Henry may be highlighting again the sacrifices that an artist or a writer must make. Sacrifices that the majority of people will never understand or have to make. Henry also seems to be using personification. The doctor calls pneumonia, Mr Pneumonia and suggests that pneumonia was not ‘what you would call a chivalric old gentleman’. Also the streets mentioned at the start of the story. They are symbolic of human passions and relationships (crazy and broken).
The ending of the story is also interesting because it is only at the end does the reader fully realise the sacrifice that Behrman has made. He has given his own life in order to save another person’s life and in many ways the single leaf that he has painted on the wall is his masterpiece. It has rejuvenated Johnsy. Just as the pneumonia was taking a toll on her lungs (and breathing) the last leaf has given her back her breath or life. Something that is noticeable when the doctor arrives and notices an improvement in Johnsy’s well-being. It is also interesting that on seeing the last leaf Johnsy no longer views life as negatively as she has previously done throughout the story. Rather she realises that ‘it is a sin to want to die.’ This line may be important as it is possible that Henry is suggesting that regardless of how one feels an individual should never give up. That they should keep trying just as Behrman did till the end when he finally managed to complete his masterpiece and restore hope into Johnsy’s life.
McManus, Dermot. "The Last Leaf by O. Henry." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 9 Apr. 2016. Web.
Our story today is called "The Last Leaf." It was written by O. Henry. Here is Barbara Klein with the story.
Many artists lived in the Greenwich Village area of New York. Two young women named Sue and Johnsy shared a studio apartment at the top of a three-story building. Johnsy's real name was Joanna.
In November, a cold, unseen stranger came to visit the city. This disease, pneumonia, killed many people. Johnsy lay on her bed, hardly moving. She looked through the small window. She could see the side of the brick house next to her building.
One morning, a doctor examined Johnsy and took her temperature. Then he spoke with Sue in another room.
"She has one chance in -- let us say ten," he said. "And that chance is for her to want to live. Your friend has made up her mind that she is not going to get well. Has she anything on her mind?"
"She -- she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples in Italy some day," said Sue.
"Paint?" said the doctor. "Bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking twice -- a man for example?"
"A man?" said Sue. "Is a man worth -- but, no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind."
"I will do all that science can do," said the doctor. "But whenever my patient begins to count the carriages at her funeral, I take away fifty percent from the curative power of medicines."
After the doctor had gone, Sue went into the workroom and cried. Then she went to Johnsy's room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime.
Johnsy lay with her face toward the window. Sue stopped whistling, thinking she was asleep. She began making a pen and ink drawing for a story in a magazine. Young artists must work their way to "Art" by making pictures for magazine stories. Sue heard a low sound, several times repeated. She went quickly to the bedside.
Johnsy's eyes were open wide. She was looking out the window and counting -- counting backward. "Twelve," she said, and a little later "eleven"; and then "ten" and "nine;" and then "eight" and "seven," almost together.
Sue looked out the window. What was there to count? There was only an empty yard and the blank side of the house seven meters away. An old ivy vine, going bad at the roots, climbed half way up the wall. The cold breath of autumn had stricken leaves from the plant until its branches, almost bare, hung on the bricks.
"What is it, dear?" asked Sue.
"Six," said Johnsy, quietly. "They're falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head hurt to count them. But now it's easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now."
"Five what, dear?" asked Sue.
"Leaves. On the plant. When the last one falls I must go, too. I've known that for three days. Didn't the doctor tell you?"
"Oh, I never heard of such a thing," said Sue. "What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting well? And you used to love that vine. Don't be silly. Why, the doctor told me this morning that your chances for getting well real soon were -- let's see exactly what he said – he said the chances were ten to one! Try to eat some soup now. And, let me go back to my drawing, so I can sell it to the magazine and buy food and wine for us."
"You needn't get any more wine," said Johnsy, keeping her eyes fixed out the window. "There goes another one. No, I don't want any soup. That leaves just four. I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark. Then I'll go, too."
"Johnsy, dear," said Sue, "will you promise me to keep your eyes closed, and not look out the window until I am done working? I must hand those drawings in by tomorrow."
"Tell me as soon as you have finished," said Johnsy, closing her eyes and lying white and still as a fallen statue. "I want to see the last one fall. I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves."
"Try to sleep," said Sue. "I must call Mister Behrman up to be my model for my drawing of an old miner. Don't try to move until I come back."
Old Behrman was a painter who lived on the ground floor of the apartment building. Behrman was a failure in art. For years, he had always been planning to paint a work of art, but had never yet begun it. He earned a little money by serving as a model to artists who could not pay for a professional model. He was a fierce, little, old man who protected the two young women in the studio apartment above him.
Sue found Behrman in his room. In one area was a blank canvas that had been waiting twenty-five years for the first line of paint. Sue told him about Johnsy and how she feared that her friend would float away like a leaf.
Old Behrman was angered at such an idea. "Are there people in the world with the foolishness to die because leaves drop off a vine? Why do you let that silly business come in her brain?"
"She is very sick and weak," said Sue, "and the disease has left her mind full of strange ideas."
"This is not any place in which one so good as Miss Johnsy shall lie sick," yelled Behrman. "Some day I will paint a masterpiece, and we shall all go away."
Johnsy was sleeping when they went upstairs. Sue pulled the shade down to cover the window. She and Behrman went into the other room. They looked out a window fearfully at the ivy vine. Then they looked at each other without speaking. A cold rain was falling, mixed with snow. Behrman sat and posed as the miner.
The next morning, Sue awoke after an hour's sleep. She found Johnsy with wide-open eyes staring at the covered window.
"Pull up the shade; I want to see," she ordered, quietly.
After the beating rain and fierce wind that blew through the night, there yet stood against the wall one ivy leaf. It was the last one on the vine. It was still dark green at the center. But its edges were colored with the yellow. It hung bravely from the branch about seven meters above the ground.
"It is the last one," said Johnsy. "I thought it would surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall today and I shall die at the same time."
"Dear, dear!" said Sue, leaning her worn face down toward the bed. "Think of me, if you won't think of yourself. What would I do?"
But Johnsy did not answer.
The next morning, when it was light, Johnsy demanded that the window shade be raised. The ivy leaf was still there. Johnsy lay for a long time, looking at it. And then she called to Sue, who was preparing chicken soup.
"I've been a bad girl," said Johnsy. "Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how bad I was. It is wrong to want to die. You may bring me a little soup now."
An hour later she said: "Someday I hope to paint the Bay of Naples."
Later in the day, the doctor came, and Sue talked to him in the hallway.
"Even chances," said the doctor. "With good care, you'll win. And now I must see another case I have in your building. Behrman, his name is -- some kind of an artist, I believe. Pneumonia, too. He is an old, weak man and his case is severe. There is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital today to ease his pain."
The next day, the doctor said to Sue: "She's out of danger. You won. Nutrition and care now -- that's all."
Later that day, Sue came to the bed where Johnsy lay, and put one arm around her.
"I have something to tell you, white mouse," she said. "Mister Behrman died of pneumonia today in the hospital. He was sick only two days. They found him the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were completely wet and icy cold. They could not imagine where he had been on such a terrible night.
And then they found a lantern, still lighted. And they found a ladder that had been moved from its place. And art supplies and a painting board with green and yellow colors mixed on it.
And look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn't you wonder why it never moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it is Behrman's masterpiece – he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell."
Words in This Story
apartment – n. a usually rented room or set of rooms that is part of a building and is used as a place to live
pneumonia – n. a serious disease that affects the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe
carriage – n. a large vehicle with four wheels that is pulled by a horse and that carries people
drawing – n. a picture, image, etc., that is made by making lines on a surface with a pencil, pen, marker, chalk, but usually not with paint
leaf – n. one of the flat and typically green parts of a plant that grow from a stem or twig
ladder – n. a device used for climbing that has two long pieces of wood, metal, or rope with a series of steps or rungs between them