The Last Leaf by O. Henry
In 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. Henry also seems to be using personification. The doctor calls pneumonia, Mr Pneumonia and suggests that pneumonia was not ‘what you would call a chivalric old gentleman’. Also the streets mentioned at the start of the story. They are symbolic of human passions and relationships (crazy and broken).
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.