In “The Last Leaf,” how does he “smile” at his victim?

In “The Last Leaf,” the speaker mentions that he “grins” at the elderly man and hopes others “smile” at him when he, too, grows old. The elderly man may be described metaphorically as a “victim” of the younger man’s scorn, but that attitude changes in the last stanza.

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In his poem “The Last Leaf,” Oliver Wendell Holmes presents a speaker who is a young person who observes an elderly man walking around. The speaker’s gender is not stated, but it is probable that he is also male based on the close affinity he seems to feel with the elderly man. The poem has eight stanzas, the first six of which are devoted to describing the old man. The speaker seems rather harsh and judgmental as he describes the man mostly in negative terms or emphasizes his physical infirmities. For example, “he totters” while walking with a cane, is “feeble,” and has a crooked back. The speaker also calls attention to his mood, describing him as “sad and wan” and “melancholy.”

Part of those six stanzas also evokes what the man was like in his youth, according to what the speaker’s grandmother and unnamed townspeople have said. These descriptions stress his former appearance and positive qualities. Two examples are the statements “his cheek was like a rose” and “not a better man was found.”

In the last two stanzas, the speaker switches to offering his impressions of this man as connected to his attitudes toward aging in very personal terms. He acknowledges that sitting and grinning at him is sinful. However, he also speaks philosophically about the way that others are likely to look at him when he grows old. In this respect, the reader could conclude that the speaker envies the old man for the long life and many experiences he has had and for being a survivor.

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