The delightful and sentimental short story entitled "The Last Leaf" follows the traditional pattern outlined by Freytag and ends with O. Henry's renowned ironic reversal.
As is the case in many of O. Henry's stories, the setting is New York City in the early 1900s. For this story, the specific setting is "a little district west of Washington Square." This district is now called Greenwich Village and has long been known as a bohemian neighborhood. Aspiring artists have come there from all parts of the country as do Johnsy, who is from California, and Sue, who is from Maine. They met at Delmonico's restaurant and found that they share many of the same interests. So, they moved together into an atelier in a brick structure.
Johnsy and Sue become good friends. Unfortunately, Johnsy is not acclimated to winter weather and when November comes, she falls ill, having contracted pneumonia. After the doctor examines Johnsy, he tells Sue that her friend has lost the will to live. He asks Sue if Johnsy is in love with anyone because interest in a man would give her the will to live. When Sue replies that Johnsy has no one, the physician is discouraged about her chances of recovery. Johnsy's illness then becomes the problem of the rising action. The conflicts emerge from this problem: Sue does not know what to do to ignite the desire to live in Johnsy, and later Behrman becomes very concerned about the young woman.
Sue moves her drawing board and other art supplies into Johnsy's room where she can watch over her friend. When she hears Johnsy counting, Sue asks her what she is counting. Johnsy replies,
"Leaves. On the ivy vine, When the last one falls, I must go, too. I've known that for three days. Didn't the doctor tell you?"
"Oh, I never heard of such nonsense," complained Sue with magnificent scorn.
She tells Johnsy not to be "goosey" because the doctor told her that Johnsy's chances for getting well are ten to one. Nevertheless, Johnsy is convinced that she is not going to live, so she urges Sue to leave the room. But Sue declares that she must find Mr. Behrman to model for her, and she needs the light from Johnsy's window. "Try to sleep," she urges Johnsy.
Sue hurries down to Mr. Behrman's residence. He, too, is an artist. Now an old man, he has always been about to paint a masterpiece but has never yet accomplished his goal. So, he earns money by serving as a model for young artists. When Sue tells old Behrman about Johnsy's illness and her despair, he shouts in anger and derision for such silly ideas:
"Vass! Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing....Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy!"
Mr. Behrman and Sue return to her apartment where they peer anxiously out at the ivy vine because there is a steady, cold rain falling, mixed with snow.
Sue has kept watch over Johnsy all of the night. When she awakens from an hour's sleep, Sue sees that Johnsy has been staring at the drawn shade. She orders Sue in a faint voice to pull up the shade. With weariness, Sue does so. Somehow there is one leaf that has remained through the night, "hanging bravely from a branch some twenty feet above the ground." Johnsy insists that she will die when this leaf falls. But it does not come off the vine. Even the next day the ivy leaf is still on its vine. Johnsy looks for a long time at this leaf. Finally, she tells Sue,
"Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die. You may bring me a little broth...."
The next day, the doctor comes to check Johnsy; he tells Sue, "She's out of danger. You've won. . . ." Then he informs Sue that there is another case of pneumonia. The janitor found him wet from head to foot and helpless with pain. He was like this for a day. Now he is in the hospital to be made more comfortable, but he will not last.
Old Behrman painted his masterpiece. Sue informs Johnsy of the great act of love painted by Behrman.
"Ah, darling, it's Behrman's masterpiece—he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell."