The short story “The Last Leaf” portraits two young women named Sue and Johnsy living together in New York. Pneumonia has hit the area they are living in and Johnsy, not being used to the climate – as she is from California, is suffering from the disease. Sue takes on the role as the caretaker of Johnsy. Because Johnsy is terminally ill, she is therefore in need of medical help. The unnamed doctor, who is called in to Johnsys aid, is portrayed as a presumptuous and nonchalant man.
He seems presumptuous by stating that he could increase Johnsys survival-prognosis if Sue got her “to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves”; implying that by being a woman you automatically have an interest in fashion. The fact that he also declare that Johnsy should think about finding herself a man, simply underlines my point further: For all he knew Johnsy could be a lesbian. It is not apparent that she is though, however there are innuendos throughout the story which could suggest that Sue and Johnsy are more than just roommates.
The doctor gives Johnsy a ten-to-one chance to survive the illness in her current state. According to him she needs to have the will to live, to survive. On the grounds that Johnsy has started the countdown to her own death by the use of the falling last leafs of an ivy vine, one could declare that will basically non-existent. Sue convinces Johnsy to stop counting the falling leafs so Sue can paint to make money instead of watching over her beloved for a while. Sue – in the need of comfort and a model for her artwork – seeks Mr. Behrmans help and guidance. He is a sixty year old man who lives on the ground floor, directly beneath the girls.
Mr. Behrman is also a painter, though he still has not managed to paint his masterpiece. The old man expresses great concern about Johnsys condition and initially, he helps Sue by posing for her portrait. He thereafter spends the rest of that night painting his masterpiece on the brick-wall outside Johnsys window. Through this act – at first unknown to both the upstairs occupants – Mr. Behrman displays sacrifice, inspiration, selflessness, neighborly care and love. Sacrifice, because he takes a great personal risk by painting outside under horrid weather-conditions.
He ignores the consequences he might have to face later and defies the weather to finish his portrait. Whether Mr. Behrman finishes his masterpiece for Johnsys or his own sake, the story does not tell us. However, whichever it is (or it could be both), he acts selflessly and also inspired by painting the portrait. Johnsys hopeless countdown was obviously both disturbing and an inspiration for the old German. Maybe facing a situation where he basically had to paint a masterpiece was the trigger for his artistic powers to make themselves known? Johnsy, while unaware of the act of Mr.
Behrman, believes that the last leaf actually is clinging on to the branch and views that as a sign that she is not supposed to die just yet. Finally she decides to eat what Sue cooks for her, thus gets better. The doctor soon declares that Johnsy is on the path of recovery. Downstairs on the other hand, Mr. Behrman is lying on his death-bed. After being out in the rainy court-yard finishing his masterpiece he has gotten sick with pneumonia, this causing the old man’s premature death. At the end of the story both girls learns the truth about Mr. Behrmans sacrifice.
Inspiration and psychological illness are both characteristics displayed by Johnsy. When she is introduced in the story she is clearly suffering from a depression. I do not, however think that Johnsy has completely lost all hope of surviving. While the countdown to her death may portrait such loss, it can, on the contrary, mean that she actually is clinging on to some last shred of hope in her life. Because, by leaving her life in the hands of something besides herself, Johnsy might – instead of losing hope – be seeking relief from responsibility for her own fate. This countdown might not be intended to be analyzed as a last hope.
If it is however, this could mean that O’Henry is trying to tell his readers that as long as there is some hope (and inspiration) left, there will still be time to change an outcome. The story is told from a third person perspective. Sue cries when she is introduced to the news about Johnsys condition in the beginning of the short-story, but this is also her only break-down. The girl recovers quickly, and she represents the moral support and the firm rock for Johnsy through the rest of the tale. Sue characterizes care, love, belief, authority and also strength through her continued nurture and encouragement of Johnsy.
O’Henry made an interesting remark about “Mr. Pneumonia”, in the beginning of the story, which I think could be an attempt to portray a classic theme, repeated in countless stories; martyrdom. An innocent life is being claimed by the villain, and then the hero comes sweeping in to save the day by taking on the scoundrel, thus sacrificing himself. The way the author defines Mr. Pneumonia as a villain, he also describes how the hero will, or should, be. “Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman” – but Mr. Behrman was.