Literature Annotations


Henry, O.
The Last Leaf


Genre Short Story (5 pp.)
KeywordsCaregivers, Death and Dying, Empathy, Love, Ordinary Life, Pain, Pneumonia
Summary

Living in early 20th century Greenwich Village are two young women artists, Sue and Johnsy (familiar for Joanna). They met in May, six months previously, and decided to share a studio apartment. Stalking their artist colony in November is "Mr. Pneumonia." The story begins as Johnsy, near death from pneumonia, lies in bed waiting for the last leaf of an ivy vine on the brick wall she spies through her window to fall.

"I’m tired of thinking," says Johnsy. "I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves"(16). However, an unexpected hero arrives to save Johnsy. It’s not the brusque doctor who gives her only one in ten chances to survive, raising them to one in five if Sue can get her to hope for something important like a man, not her true desire to "paint the Bay of Naples some day" (14).

Mr. Behrman, an old man who lives in the apartment below Sue and Johnsy, who enjoys drinking, works sometimes as an artist’s model, and as yet has made no progress over the past 40 years on painting his own masterpiece, becomes in typical O. Henry fashion the hero. The evidence of his heroics are found the day before he dies from pneumonia: outside Johnsy’s window are a ladder, a lantern still lighted "some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it . . . it’s Behrman’s masterpiece--he painted it [a leaf] there the night that the last leaf fell"(19), Sue informs Johnsy.

Commentary

There are two interesting things I found in this story in addition to the general theme of death and dying. First, there is the ambiguity surrounding the relationship of the two women. I believe that they may have been lovers, but it was something that the author only felt comfortable hinting at.

Second, I’ve been fascinated for years about the number of persons, especially among the "house cases" I’ve seen on rounds, who have been cared for by neighbors. In this story, the neighbor, Mr. Behrman, makes the ultimate sacrifice through his neighborly caregiving. I’m convinced that there are many persons whose lives are saved (or at least the quality of their lives are significantly improved) by caring acts of friends and neighbors.

SourceFavorite Short Stories
PublisherWalker
Edition1967
EditorsHenry Gilfond
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceThe Last Leaf
Alternate PublisherCreative Education
Alternate Edition1980
Place PublishedMankato, Minn.
MiscellaneousThe author was born as William Sidney Porter and died as Will S. Parker. The story was adapted as a one-act play with additional characters by Robert Brome (Eldridge Publishing Co., Franklin, Ohio and Denver, Colorado, 1966). The Creative Education edition is part of a Creative Classic Series for readers of all ages with illustrations by Byron Glaser; it includes a short biography of the author.
Annotated by Kohn, Martin
Date of Entry 08/09/01
Last Revised 08/29/01