The Last Leaf: A Short Story by O’Henry

The Last Leaf is a short story by O’Henry published in 1907.

It is inconceivable to know that William Sydney Porter was a failure in most things he attempted and was even jailed for embezzlement. Then, he started writing, using the pen name O’Henry and became popular. But it is said that he died a pauper in 1910 at the age of 48. Today, we have the prestigious ‘O’Henry Prize’ for short stories instituted in his honour.

The Last Leaf is set in a small district towards the west of Washington Square, where Sue and Joanna had met. Sue was from Maine and Joanna was from California. Joanna is called by the name ‘Johnsy’. Their mutual interests in art and other things made them venture into a joint studio.

They had met in the month of May and after about six months, pneumonia had spread in the locality infecting many and even causing deaths. Johnsy was infected too. On doctor’s visit, he predicted her chances of survival as minimal. Johnsy had given up her hope to recover. In answering the doctor on what could motivate Johnsy to live, Sue replies, “She – she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day.” The doctor seems disappointed as he would have rather wanted Sue to tell about some man which he thought would be a worthier desire to live than to paint.

While taking care of Johnsy, Sue had to devote time towards completing an illustration for a magazine, for, “Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to literature.”  

Sue was painting a cowboy from Idaho. And, Johnsy was counting numbers backward from twelve looking out of the window. But there was hardly anything engaging her in the view outside the window so instead she turned to counting backwards. When she reached six, Johnsy stopped to tell Sue that there were about a hundred leaves on the ivy vine three days ago, of which only five were left now. Johnsy had the intuition that she would die with the fall of the last leaf. 

The significance of what appears to be “An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half way up the brick wall” is so much greater for Johnsy. The cold autumn wind had plucked almost all its leaves from the branches and the bare skeleton lay along the crumbling brick.

Sue keeps insisting Johnsy to close her eyes to get some rest, instead of staring at the falling leaves while she has to complete her painting.

Behrman was the sixty-year-old painter living on the ground floor of the building where the two young artists lived. He was a failure as a painter. Though Behrman intended to paint a masterpiece someday, he never quite got started. He had not painted anything for last twenty five years. His source of income was the money he earned by posing as a model for young artists who could not afford to hire professionals.

Sue told Behrman how Johnsy had linked her life to the leaves, imagining her to turn as light and fragile as the falling leaves. Behrman could only dismiss this supposition as idiotic. But Behrman went with Sue to see Johnsy and through the window to have a look at the tree.

The last leaf refused to fall off and the persistence changed Johnsy’s mind as she began to feel strength, putting behind the idea of death. In the meanwhile, Behrman had contracted pneumonia and had died in the hospital. He had spent a night outside in the cold to paint an ivy leaf and fix it.    

The last ivy leaf, “it’s Behrman’s masterpiece.” An epiphany to end this poignant tale.

It is interesting to note how O’Henry undermines the effects of modern medicines against the inner strength to combat a disease. A physical ailment is overcome by something that is either supernatural or the power of our mind.

3 thoughts on “The Last Leaf: A Short Story by O’Henry

  1. Pingback: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom | Book Review | Bookishloom

  2. There are few short story writers to rival O Henry. His works are simply out of the world. And Last Leaf is one of my favourite ones. We had it in school as one of the lessons in English.

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