The Last Leaf by O. Henry — Story Analysis
To the west of Washington Square, there is a quarter that has a maze of narrow winding streets which can easily confuse a stranger. The streets crisscross so frequently that a bill collector on his errand would curse himself to find that he has returned to the same point in his quest of the elusive debtor.
This place, known as Greenwich Village, has some modest houses that are available for affordable rents. Budding painters flock to this area as they find the houses with their Dutch attics and eighteenth century gables the ideal setting for their pastime. In the past, many such artists have come here with their wherewithal to set up their studio. The place has become their ‘colony’.
Two artists, Sue and Joana (nickname ‘Johnsy’) work from a single studio. Sue hails from Maine and her friend from California. The two art connoisseurs ran into one another in d’hote in Eighth Street. They bonded well quickly as both had similar tastes in art and food. Both decided to share a single studio.
In November, pneumonia spread like an epidemic in the artist colony. One after another, the inhabitants came under the spell of this disease.
The virulent pneumonia quickly made the frail-bodied Johnsy bed-ridden. With a pallid face, she lay helplessly on her iron bed looking vacantly at the outside sky through the Dutch window. Johnsy’s condition deteriorated fast. Seeing that her friend was slipping dangerously, Sue called in the over-stretched doctor to see her friend Johnsy lying hopelessly sick.
The doctor made a grim observation as he measured Johsy’s temperature with the thermometer. He declared that the lady was too unwell, and had only a 10% chance of surviving. He also declared that Johnsy was forlorn, and had lost all her will to recover. She could pull it through only if she had a strong enough desire to fight off the affliction. Saying this, the doctor asked if the patient had any un-fulfilled desire.
Sue answered that Johnsy had wanted to paint the Bay of Naples one day. The doctor was somewhat un-convinced at this. He asked if Johnsy had any young man in mind. Sue quickly replied in the negative. The doctor concluded that the patient had become too weak to survive. Nevertheless, he assured that he would give the best medicine possible. But the medication lost its efficacy by half, if the patient lost her will power to win her battle against the disease. The doctor urged Sue to talk Johnsy out of her desperation, so that the chances of recovery doubled from a low 10% to 20%.
After the doctor left, Sue cried miserably shedding many tears. Then pulling herself up, she brushed aside the gloom and walked into Johnsy’s bedside holding her drawing board. There was cheer in Sue’s appearance. She was determined to lift her friend’s gloomy mood.
Johnsy lay in her bed motionless, like deadwood. Sue stopped whistling assuming that Johnsy was asleep.
Sue arranged for Johnsy’s diet and began to draw a pen sketch for a story. Just as budding authors write tirelessly to get a foothold in the world of literature, young artists draw sketches for stories.
The sketch Sue was drawing pertained to a cowboy from Idaho with his typical trousers and monocle. Just then, she heard a low, muffled sound that appeared to be a count-down exercise. Quite perplexed, Sue rushed to her friend’s bedside.
Johnsy lay there motionless staring at something outside and counting backwards. In her faint voice, she counted 12, 11, 10 and so on.
Looking outside through the window, Sue wanted to figure out what Johnsy was doing. One could just see a dull yard and the back of a brick house. A withering old vine creeper clinging to the brick wall was visible. The autumn cold wind had stripped the vine of its leaves laying bare its skeleton branch.
Sue inquisitively asked Johnsy what had engaged her attention.
Johnsy said there were 100 leaves three days ago. Their number was dwindling fast as they fell faster then. It was getting easier to count. Only five were left.
Sue still could not get any clue.
Then came the unsettling explanation from Johnsy. She said she was counting the leaves. The fall of the last leaf would bring her the death and her deliverance from the suffering.
Sue was crestfallen to hear such words of doom and gloom. She dismissed Johnsy’s idea of impending death as utter nonsense. She pleaded with Johnsy to get over such despondency and be positive. To lift her sagging morale, Sue disclosed that the doctor had still given some hope of survival and everything was not over yet. ‘Although slender, it was after all, some hope,’ Sue argued. Pleading frenetically with her sick friend to get over her defeatist attitude, Sue begged Johnsy to regain her mental strength. In a nonchalant manner.
Sue asked Johnsy to let her finish her incomplete art work. Sue was keen to get her fees from the client. Johnsy was unmoved. She continued her count down despite being admonished by her friend. She seemed to be seeing death almost knocking at her door. She said she was waiting for the last leaf to fall so that she could depart.
Sue again beseeched Johnsy not to continue the delirium and lie with eyes shut. This could enable her to finish the incomplete drawing so that she could give it to the client in time the next day.
Johnsy was obdurate. She suggested Sue to move to the other room so that she could continue her count down.
Sue said she would be at her friend’s bedside. She insisted that Johnsy must stop the counting.
Johnsy agreed not to disturb Sue while the latter completed her work. But, she was keen to see the last leaf fall that would signal her permanent respite from all the pain and suffering.
Sue urged Johnsy to sleep. She intended to go and quickly get Behrman who would be the model for the old hermit miner.
Behrman was a painter living in the ground floor. He was past sixty and had a typical beard. As a painter he had struggled for nearly forty years, but any spectacular success had eluded him. He had a desire to paint a masterpiece, but never had been able to start the job in right earnest. Behraman had managed to eke out a living doing sundry painting jobs, mostly for commercial purposes. At times, he doubled up as model for other artists in the colony. He splurged on gin and boasted about his forthcoming project to paint a masterpiece that had not come to fruition yet. He was burly, and posed as the self-appointed protector of the two women artists living in the first floor.
Sue found Behrman in his dimly lit studio in the ground floor. A black canvass mounted on an easel had stood there for twenty five years to receive Behrman’s touch for his much avowed masterpiece. Sue narrated how Johnsy had been lying in her sick bed with her obsession with the last leaf in the vine that stood between her and her death.
Behrman rubbished the linkage between falling leaf of a vine and a human’s death.
Behrman contemptuously dismissed Johnsy’s fears as absolutely silly. He even castigated Sue for having put up with such utterly unfounded notion that linked dead leaves with a person’s life span. In disgust, Behrman refused to come to pose as Sue’s model.
By then Sue was getting fed up with Behrman’s insensitivity. She reiterated how frail Johnsy had become and ticked off Behrman as a miserable dodger of responsibility.
Behrman’s feelings were hurt. He said he would surely come to pose for Sue, but asserted that Johnsy’s sickness had made him too sad to pose. Then he repeated his bravado that one day he would paint his masterpiece.
Johnsy had fallen asleep by the time Sue accompanied by Behrman came upstairs.
The next morning Sue got up from her one-hour sleep to find Johnsy staring at the green colored shade that had been drawn down.
Johnsy wanted the shade to be pulled up to let her see the outside. Sue agreed reluctantly to this request.
But what a surprise! Despite the strong winds and lashing rain that battered the place the whole night, a lone leaf had managed to defy the onslaught to cling to the vine creeper’s skeleton.
Johnsy was surprised by the way the lone leaf had withstood the lashing of the rain and the wind. She had hoped that it would have fallen so that she could die. She imagined that the leaf would fall that day.
Sue found Johnsy’s prophesy very depressing. She became emotional and again pleaded with her sick friend to come out of her sinking mood.
Sue’s remonstrations failed to move Johnsy. She persisted with her morbid thoughts as if preparing to bid adieu to this mortal world.
The day dragged on monotonously. The night fell bringing with it another spell of heavy rain and strong wind. The lone leaf appeared to defy the fury of the weather. It remained attached to its stem.
When the light was good enough, Johnsy again repeated her order to have the shade raised.
The ivy leaf was still there.
Johnsy kept her gaze fixed on the defiant leaf. Then she called Sue out of the kitchen.
There appeared to be a complete turn around in Johnsy’s mood. She seemed to have realized her folly in giving up on her life when the single leaf stubbornly stayed put in its place. She was gripped with a feeling of repentance. Her mood had swung from utter frustration to hope. She asked for a little broth and the mirror to see her face. She wanted to sit up so that she could see Sue working in the kitchen.
An hour passed. Johnsy recalled her desire to paint the Bay of Naples.
The doctor came in the afternoon. Sue knowingly slipped out into the hallway.
The doctor told Sue that the patient had a much better chance of surviving than before. He told her that the patient might pull it through with good nursing and care. Then he said he must go downstairs to see another patient. That was Behrman. He was seriously ill with Pneumonia. The doctor said how hopeless Behrman’s condition was. He was being shifted to the hospital to wait out his last hours.
The next day the doctor announced that Johnsy’s condition had improved significantly. She needed care and comfort to get back to her feet.
Sue came to Johnsy’s bedside in the afternoon to find her busy with some knitting work apparently to fight off her boredom.
Sue had some sad news to announce. After just two days of suffering from Pneumonia, Behrman had succumbed to the disease. The day before, the janitor had found him in great pain lying helplessly in his room in the ground floor. His shoes and clothes were completely drenched and cold. No one could know where Behrman had been in that wet night. And then they found a lantern, still aglow, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it. Saying this, Sue asked her friend to look out of the window, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. She asked Johnsy to think why the last leaf remained static unmoved by the wind. It was Behrman’s masterpiece – the one he painted the night that the last leaf fell.”