The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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In "The Last Leaf," how does the author describe pneumonia and its activities?  

In "The Last Leaf," O. Henry describes pneumonia in anthropomorphic terms, depicting it as a gentleman actively driven by malice. Throughout this story, O. Henry shows the suffering the disease creates, as well as the lethal outcomes that can result.

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In "The Last Leaf," O. Henry utilizes personification, presenting pneumonia as a malicious gentleman (and be aware, O. Henry utilizes the specific word "gentleman" in describing the illness). O. Henry writes about how pneumonia "stalked about the colony, touching one here and there with his icy fingers," thus spreading the disease to more victims. In this way, O. Henry defines pneumonia as an actively malicious force in the world.

At the same time, however, one should keep in mind that this description is itself an extended metaphor (pneumonia is, at the end of the day, not actually a person, and the rest of the story reflects this). From here, O. Henry depicts the suffering brought about by the disease. In the story's beginning, a doctor alerts Sue that her sick friend, Johnsy, only has a ten percent chance of survival, and as we meet Johnsy herself, we observe how she has given up, convinced that she is going to die. Throughout the story, O. Henry conveys the suffering this disease places both on the sick as well as on their friends and loved ones. Finally, even though Johnsy herself does survive at the end of the story, O. Henry does not shy away from depicting the disease's lethality. The older Behrman, who goes outside to paint that final leaf upon the vine, falls ill, dying from pneumonia as a result.

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Pneumonia is personified with a capital "P" and described as a stranger, an alien invader who arrives and ravages the quiet, haphazard, artsy streets and cul-de-sacs of Greenwich Village.

He is depicted as man and as a bully who comes after the fragile Johnsy, who is not used to cold weather. The narrator calls him a "red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer" who knocks Johnsy out.

There is something almost lighthearted about the way the narrator describes Mr. Pneumonia. However, the disease is very serious in these days before antibiotics, and Johnsy is dangerously ill, so much so that the doctor who checks in on her tells her close friend Sue that Johnsy's chances of survival are only one in ten. The doctor advises Sue that Johnsy needs some reason to get well—that will up her chances of weathering the disease to one in five. These are still not good odds.

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In "The Last Leaf," the author describes pneumonia as a cold stranger with equally cold hands. He personifies the sickness as a malevolent character called Mr. Pneumonia.

Accordingly, Mr. Pneumonia is also invisible; no one can see him. He infects many people on the east side of Greenwich Village. However, he seems to slow down once he gets to Greenwich Village. Nevertheless, Mr. Pneumonia decides to infect Johnsy, said to be a diminutive little woman from California. All things considered, the author describes pneumonia as an invisible, malignant character who stalks the weak and innocent and consigns them to a miserable death.

After Mr. Pneumonia touches Johnsy with his cold fingers, she becomes bedridden. Johnsy loses her will to live, and the doctor tells her roommate Sue that there is little hope for someone who chooses not to fight the illness.

In the story, Mr. Pneumonia also infects old Mr. Behrman, the painter. Because of his compassion, Mr. Behrman decides to help Johnsy live. During the night, he paints the last leaf on the old tree. It is his best work, a masterpiece. The leaf is so realistic that it comforts Johnsy immensely.

It also convinces her to hold on to life. Basically, Mr. Behrman sacrificed his health and life in order to save Johnsy. The next day, Mr. Behrman dies. Although Mr. Behrman succumbs to pneumonia, his sacrifice has helped preserve a young life.

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In "The Last Leaf," pneumonia is personified as Mr. Pneumonia and described as a cold stranger and a "ravager" that has "stalked" over the country, touching people and infecting them with inflammation of the lungs at random.

When this cruel stranger arrives in November in New York City, he touches people at random, it seems. But on the east side of New York, "this ravager strode boldly, smiting his victims by scores" (score=20). Described with O. Henry's characteristic irony as less than a "chivalric old gentleman," Mr. Pneumonia strikes the small little Johnsy, whose blood is thinned from having lived all her life in California.

Poor Johnsy is overpowered by the cruel forces of the lung inflammation and weakened to the point that she begins to physically lose her hold on life, as well as her will to live. Her roommate and friend, Sue, urges her frail friend to fight for her life, but Johnsy begins to lose her will against the cruel Mr. Pneumonia. It is not until Sue elicits the aid of old Mr. Behrman that Johnsy is saved from the cruelty of the "ravager."

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