The Last Leaf by O. Henry

The Last Leaf - O. HenryIn 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.

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.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Last Leaf by O. Henry." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 9 Apr. 2016. Web.

20 comments

  • How about characters and point of view 🙂 Thanks

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment An Tam. The point of view used in the story is a third person omniscient narrative. The benefit of which is that we get an insight into the thinking of all the characters mentioned in the story. Two of the characters in the story would be termed round characters as they develop somewhat. Johnsy returns to health and Behrman acts as the trigger for Johnsy to change. Both characters ‘move’ forward throughout the story. Though Behrman does end up sacrificing his life for Johnsy. Sue might be described as a flat character. She does not change throughout the story. Spending her time either looking after Johnsy or painting. Through her influence should not be under estimated as it is through her character that Henry manages to set the ball in motion for Johnsy to eventually change her perspective on life.

  • Can you suggest to me an idea of ending this story in literary peace?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Sukhleen. I’m not sure I fully understand your question with regard to literary peace. Perhaps if Behrman hadn’t given his life to Johnsy and rather than dying had witnessed the benefit of his painting (or masterpiece) to others (Johnsy).

  • Thanks. I looked out the window at the doctor’s office and this story came to mind. I saw it years ago and read the book in the park.

  • I want to focus on the theme being ‘sacrifice’, which Behrman clearly made for Johnsy. However, have Johnsy and Sue made any sacrifices in the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Molly. It may be a case that Sue has also made a sacrifice. She has spent her time throughout the story being concerned and caring for Johnsy. Putting her focus on Johnsy rather than just continuing on with her life. It is Sue’s actions that act as a catalyst for Johnsy’s recovery. With regard to Johnsy herself making a sacrifice it is possible that she has made a sacrifice by being willing to die for what she believes in. Though again it is Behrman, driven by his friendship with Johnsy, who has made the ultimate sacrifice (dying).

  • Is this a story critique?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Bobby. What I’ve written is a brief analysis of the story. It’s difficult to include everything in such a small space so I sometimes miss things.

  • Thank you for the great analysis…Few questions that popped into my head. Why is Behrman’s death being considered as a sacrifice? Also why is Johnsy committed to dying?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Devanshi. Behrman’s death may be considered to be a sacrifice because he could have ignored what was happening Johnsy but instead chose to try and help her. To restore her faith in life. He didn’t need to do anything and gave himself (and his life) in an effort to help Johnsy.

      Johnsy may be committed to dying because she believes in something so much. She seems to believe in the beauty of life and each falling leaf suggests that there is so much decay in life that the beauty is not being seen.

  • Does this story possess a lesbian atmosphere between Sue and Johnsy?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Shadhiya. When I read and reviewed the story I looked upon Sue and Johnsy’s relationship as being purely a friendship. However it is possible to use a different lens when reading the story and assess their relationship as being something else.

  • Can you give a psychoanalytic reading on the last leaf?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Najeeb. I’m not sure that I’m qualified to analysis the story through a psychoanalytic lens. As far as I can work out a psychoanalytic reading of the story would involve an exploration of the the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author. I don’t know enough about Henry to analysis the story in that manner.

  • 1.Hi. Why was behrman called to have head of satyr and body of imp?

    2.Why did Mr behrman speak a different language from johnsy/ sue..Is it that he had a traditional accent : “is dere people in de world..”

    3. Why did he scoff at people?

    Please help:)

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Devanshi. It is possible that Henry is using Behrman’s physical appearance (satyr and imp) to suggest to the reader that Behrman is non-human which in many ways is ironic because of the act of kindness he commits for Johnsy. For a lot of the story Behrman could be interpreted as being cold and his act of kindness comes as a surprise to the reader.

      With regard to Behrman’s accent Henry may be attempting to differentiate between Behrman and others. To try and make him stand out. Which he does at the end of the story. It is also possible that Behrman scoffs at other people because he may consider himself to be better than others. It may also be a defense mechanism that Behrman uses to protect himself from others too. A defensive wall so as nobody can get close to him.

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