The Last Leaf | Summary, Theme and Analysis

The Last Leaf | Summary, Theme and Analysis

The Last Leaf O. Henry


The Last Leaf Summary

The setting of the Last Leaf is spread out in Old Greenwich Village in the district West of Washington Square (America). Streets are so criss-cross, giving the place or location a labyrinthine character. It becomes difficult for a collector with a bill for points, paper and canvas to visit the right house for he collection of his payment on account. The artist discovers a valuable possibility of dodging the collector. The people with art interest came crowing in search of apartments with north windows, gables and upper story with low rents. At the top of a brick-built house, two girls set up a studio and they are Sue and Johnsy. They hail from California and Maine. They have some common tastes in art, chicory salad, full sleeves at the wrist.

The violent rage of Pneumonia attacks the fragile-bodied Johnsy, who gets spectre-thin and almost bed-ridden. According to the doctor’s declaration she can survive if she wants to live. The doctor advises that she must pursue an ideal to live-her ideal is to paint the Bay of Naples. But she needs something more–the association and affinity of a man whom she loves. But Johnsy is ill-fated. The doctor cannot proceed beyond the scope of medical science. Everything lies in the hands of the patient.

Sue’s recital of a popular song cannot move Johnsy. She looks straight beyond the window. She tries in multiple ways–the illustration of a magazine story, painting a pair of horses with a hero riding on it, like a cowboy, soft-tuned music, but in vain. Johnsy remains aloof, only looking at the window and counts backward-twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven etc. Her eyes are fixed at the bare yard outside with ivy vine, with the cold wind string the ivy and the fall of leaves. What becomes apparent is that she has been counting the falling leaves. The fall of “the last leaf” will indicate her death. Sue promises her good wishes to sell her illustration to buy port wine for her.

Johnsy, lacking all desires, has lost her wish to live. The fall of leaves has a deeper meaning- indicating the fall of the last leaf in her own life. This has a Biblical connection with the Tree of Life. She approaches death and Sue asks Johnsy not look at the window and keep her eyes closed. Light is needed for the completion of her painting. Sue is asked to do so in another room, but she is determined to stay with Johnsy to prevent her from looking at the open window. But Johnsy is eager to observe the fall of the ‘last leaf“. Sue requests her to try to sleep. She will go to Behrman downstairs to ask him to be a model for the old hermit miner.

Old Behrman is painter, living on the ground floor. He has a beard like Moses painted by Michael Angelo. He failed as a painter though he cherished to paint a masterpiece. But somehow he manages to live by painting for advertising or commercials, and by being a model. He loves the young artists- Johnsy and Sue and protects them. Behrman comes to know of the latest condition of Johnsy and agrees to pose a model for Sue’s painting. Going upstairs, Johnsy is revealed sleeping. There is a continuity of rainfall associated with snow-fall.

The next morning, awaking from sleep, Sue discovers Johnsy staring at the screen. The screen being pulled up, the window gives a Surprising miracle the singular ivy leaf stands out against the brick wall, in spite of the heavy downpour, gusts of winds on the previous night. There is a metaphysical coincidence of the death of Johnsy and the fall of the ‘last leaf” yet to ground.

At night again the wind blows and rain pours. She is asked to raise screen for a full view of the window. It is a happy sign that the ‘last leaf’ is a happy sign that the “last leaf” is still hanging. Johnsy wants broth, milk, and wine, sits up. Life has come alive. She dreams her masterpiece the Bay of Naples. Only care and nutrition, as doctor thought, will completely cure her.

Johnry gets out of danger, but Berman succumbs to pneumonia. The gate keeper finds him on the first day of his illness helpless with pain. His shoes and clothes were wet and cold. On the nightmarish night of heavy downpour and gusty wind, he painted the leaf —”the last leaf” on the wall. Just below the wall, were discovered a lantern, a ladder and a palette. “The last leaf” on the wall, is a painted “leaf” which has no capacity to move or flutter. Such is the artistic masterpiece of unhonoured Behrman, bringing life to Johnsy and death (the last breath) to himself.

The Last Leaf Theme

Art is greater than life. All art is imitation. It is the imitation that gives life to Johnsy and death to Behrman. The moment is immortalized in art-medium, here—the painted ‘last leaf”. Art is the source of life and sustenance, O. Henry deals with both metaphysics and aesthetics and immortality through art-objects ‘The Last Leaf‘ indicates the last breath on behalf of Behrman and a symbol of green life for Johnsy.

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Art is a product of pain and human essence. Behrman feels the ‘weariness, fret and fever of Johnsy risking his own life to save ill fated, weak Johnsy. Great art is produced by sacrifice. Behrman remains the heroic idol, both as an artist and as a perfect, complete man. Moments may be fleeting but art is long that is once again proved artistically in the genre of the short story by O. Henry who painted the tragic chronicle of ‘The Gift of the Magi’‘. Art has a rejuvenating power to review a life-cycle of a distressed woman. The regaining of the interest in life and bread of Johnsy is a miracle of O. Henry’s aesthetics. The story catches a glimpse but leaves behind the eternal image and memory of “the last leaf“.

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