In “The Last Leaf,” the protagonist, Sue, is resilient, stern, and strategic. While caring for Johnsy, Sue exhibits these qualities that ultimately save her ill friend’s life.
Despite the doctor’s disheartening prognosis for Johnsy, Sue refuses to give up on her friend’s unlikely recovery.
After the doctor had gone, Sue went into the workroom to cry. Then she walked into Johnsy’s room. She carried some of her painting materials, and she was singing.
She lets herself cry—just not in front of Johnsy. Instead of collapsing in despair or exhibiting any fear, she recomposes herself: she puts on a cheerful front, sings, and strides back into Johnsy’s room with painting supplies. Sue brings along these materials for two possible reasons: to help Johnsy recall a reason for living (i.e., their artistic vocation) and to provide an excuse to stay in her room.
Sue is also stern but caring. When Johnsy says that she will die when the last leaf on a tree branch outside her window falls, Sue gently scolds her:
Oh, I never heard of such a thing…It doesn’t have any sense in it. What does an old tree have to do with you? Or with your getting well? And you used to love that tree so much. Don’t be a little fool.
Although words like “never heard,” “doesn’t have any sense,” and “fool” may seem condescending, they actually inject a bit of levity into the morbid prediction. Sue points out the lack of logic in Johnsy’s thoughts and tries to prevent her from failing further into an abyss of depression.
Sue continues giving Johnsy “tough love” by not indulging in her friend’s bleak and self-pitying mood. Instead, she delivers a white lie and orders her to get nourishment.
The doctor told me your chances for getting well. He told me this morning. He said you had very good chances! Try to eat a little now. And then I’ll go back to work.
In fact, Sue is quite strategic and persistent in plotting their future actions: she plans to finish her painting, sell it, and then use her earnings to purchase more food for Johnsy to eat and regain strength. Despite Johnsy’s resistance, Sue insists on staying in Johnsy’s room with the window coverings for adequate lighting to complete her painting. This move not only provides Sue an excuse to stay with Johnsy, but it also forces Johnsy to close her eyes and stop staring at (and brooding on) the falling leaves.
Sue’s resilience and persistence are evident as she manages to complete her painting under much stress:
She worked through most of the night. In the morning, after an hour’s sleep, she went to Johnsy’s bedside.
Despite having slept so little herself, she still checks on her friend. Overall, Sue is a true caregiver. Even the doctor compliments her on Johnsy’s surprising recovery by saying, “She’s safe. You have done it.”