Literature

A Summary and Analysis of O. Henry’s ‘The Last Leaf’

The stories of the US short-story writer O. Henry, real name William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), are characterised by their irony and by their surprise endings, which became something of a signature of a good O. Henry short story. The 1907 story ‘The Last Leaf’ is among his most famous: along with ‘The Gift of the Magi’ it may be the best-known O. Henry story of all.

You can read ‘The Last Leaf’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below.

‘The Last Leaf’: plot summary

The story focuses on two female artists. The women are named Sue and Joanna, who is known as ‘Johnsy’. They live in Greenwich Village in New York among a ‘colony’ of artists who reside in the area.

One particularly cold winter, Johnsy falls ill with pneumonia and it looks likely she will die of the disease. The doctor takes Sue to one side and tells her that Johnsy has perhaps a ten per cent chance of surviving, but what she needs is something worth living for that will give her the strength to rally and recover. He asks Sue if Johnsy has a man in her life she loves, but Sue says she has not.

Johnsy herself believes that she will perish when the last leaf of the year falls from the ivy vine outside her window. She has resigned herself to dying, much to the frustration of Sue, who is trying to help her friend.

Sue and Johnsy live in the top apartment of the house. On the ground floor, Behrman, a male artist in his sixties lives. He has a beard like Moses in Michelangelo’s famous sculpture. He is always talking about being on the brink of producing his ‘masterpiece’, but has never yet done so. He is, in short, a failed artist.

When Sue tells Behrman about Johnsy’s belief that she will perish when the last leaf falls from the vine, he scoffs at such a superstitious idea. But when Sue asks him to come and pose for her (he often poses for other artists), he agrees.

The next day, Johnsy asks Sue to roll up the blind so she can look out at the ivy vine and see if the last leaf has fallen. But when the blind is put up, they find the last leaf still holding onto the branch. The day turns into night and still the last leaf clings to the vine. Johnsy apologises to Sue, realising how selfish it was to long to die like that. She interprets the ivy leaf’s tenacity as a sign that she should not have been so ready to embrace death.

The doctor visits and announces that Johnsy’s condition has much improved. However, he has also come to visit Behrman downstairs, who has fallen seriously ill with pneumonia. Sure enough, he dies soon after. In the final paragraph of the story, Sue tells Johnsy that Berhman painted an imitation ivy leaf and attached it to the vine on the wall the night the real last leaf fell to the ground.

That leaf, which was good enough to pass for a real leaf, is his masterpiece, which he has finally produced. But in going out into the cold weather to paint the leaf, he caught pneumonia and died.

‘The Last Leaf’: analysis

The most characteristic feature of O. Henry’s short stories, many of which run to just a few pages, is the surprise twist ending. ‘The Last Leaf’ is no exception. Two key details of the story – Johnsy’s belief that the last leaf on the vine is a ‘sign’ of her own imminent demise, Behrman’s belief that he is imminently about to produce his life’s ‘masterpiece’ – converge at the story’s close, as it is revealed that Johnsy’s superstitious belief (which Behrman mocked as silly) is what enabled him to paint his masterpiece.

Similarly, the existence of Behrman’s fake leaf gives Johnsy the necessary mental strength to turn a corner with her illness and realise how wrong it was to wish for death.

A number of O. Henry stories contain profound irony, especially in their final plot twists. ‘The Last Leaf’ is more ironic than most, perhaps because the stakes are so high: Behrman dies of the same illness which afflicted Johnsy; Behrman gives his life in order to save Johnsy’s, but also to produce his life’s work, his ‘masterpiece’.

There is also a deep irony attached to the doctor’s earlier conversation with Sue, in which he enquired whether Johnsy had a ‘man’ in her life who might provide her with a reason to go on living. Of course, the doctor has a beau or sweetheart in mind, but Behrman – whose German surname even contains the word ‘man’ – turns out to be the unlikely saviour come to fulfil that prophecy.

O. Henry spends considerable time portraying Behrman as a failure who drinks too much gin and has led a largely wasted life. He appears to have no family and has not produced any art of note, despite self-identifying as an ‘artist’:

He was past sixty and had a Michael Angelo’s Moses beard curling down from the head of a satyr along with the body of an imp. Behrman was a failure in art. Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For several years he had painted nothing except now and then a daub in the line of commerce or advertising.

Note how the closest parallel between Behrman and Michelangelo is in the former’s physical appearance: his beard resembles that of Moses in the great artist’s sculpture. Behrman appears more like a work of (ageing) art than he appears capable of producing one. Indeed, the comparisons with a satyr and an imp suggest he is lecherous and sinful: satyrs are fauns often associated (in artworks) with lust.

He earned a little by serving as a model to those young artists in the colony who could not pay the price of a professional. He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece. For the rest he was a fierce little old man, who scoffed terribly at softness in any one, and who regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above.

The irony is, of course, that this gruff, morally questionable man who despises ‘softness’ will give his life in pursuit of saving another. And sure enough, O. Henry is quick to stress how protective Behrman is towards both Sue and Johnsy. But of course, in painting his leaf he also frees himself from forty years of artistic failure and (relative) inactivity.

What, then, is the ‘moral’ of ‘The Last Leaf’? In part, the story can be analysed as a moral fable (of sorts) about art: the best art springs out of the need to help others. Behrman may dismiss Johnsy’s belief in the last leaf falling as misguided magical thinking, but he knows that he will be providing a service to her in painting the leaf and staving off her desire for death. This is in keeping with his readiness to pose as a model for other poor and struggling young artists.

Such an attitude – the best art helps others – has a corollary: namely, that the artist is himself helped in his pursuit of great art when he is motivated to help others. The best art, O. Henry seems to be saying, springs from compassion.

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