The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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What are the differences and similarities among the characters of "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry?

In "The Last Leaf," the two main characters have similarities and differences. While they share a love of art and other things in the outside world, their personalities and reactions to the world around them are different. These differences are seen most clearly in their words and actions concerning Johnsy's pneumonia. Sue is more positive and believes that Johnsy can get better if she does certain things, while Johnsy is hopeless and is sure that she will die.

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In O. Henry's short story “The Last Leaf,” the three main characters—Sue, Johnsy, and Behrman—are similar in that each has goals; they are different, however, in how they pursue their goals. All three characters are starving artists living in 1900s Greenwich Village during a pneumonia epidemic. Sue and Johnsy are young painters early in their careers; Behrman, on the other hand, is a grizzled old man who has painted without much success for forty years.

Before catching pneumonia, Johnsy has a long-term goal to “go to Italy and paint a picture of the Bay of Naples.” The doctor tells Sue that Johnsy has a chance to recover if she has a desire to live. When Sue reveals Johnsy’s goal, the doctor scoffs and pushes it off as nonsense. He assumes that sexist and materialistic goals, like “a man” or “new winter clothes,” are more appropriate to motivate Johnsy to live.

Now, however, Johnsy reveals a less ambitious and romantic yet more immediate, narrow, and dark goal: to die when the last leaf falls from an old tree outside their apartment window. She recounts to Sue her observations of the leaves on the tree:

Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It hurt my head to count them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There are only five now...Leaves. On the tree. When the last one falls, I must go, too.

The way that Johnsy pursues this goal is through passivity. Having given up on recovery and life, she simply waits for the last leaf to fall. Significantly, she ties her death to exterior factors over which she has no control. She allows her fate to be determined by the weather and the leaf’s reaction to rain and wind. She wants “to go sailing down, down, like one of those leaves.”

In contrast, Sue has an immediate goal that she proactively pursues: saving Johnsy. After weeping at the doctor’s prognosis, she dries her tears and puts on a happy face before entering Johnsy’s room. She sings and paints to be near Johnsy. Sue’s cheerful attitude belies her inner torment and sadness. In fact, she tells a white lie to Johnsy that the doctor rates Johnsy’s chances of recovery as good. Then Sue turns to more pressing and tangible steps to reach her goal, telling Johnsy,

Try to eat a little now. And then I’ll go back to work. And then I can sell my picture, and then I can buy something more for you to eat to make you strong.

Sue optimistically lays out a strategy: Johnsy eats, and in the meanwhile, Sue will finish a painting which she assumes she will be able to sell for profits to purchase more food.

Unlike the women, old man Behrman harbors (and has been for decades) a more nebulous goal:

He had always talked of painting a great picture, a masterpiece, but he had never yet started it.

Instead, he constantly defers his goal through distractions, like modeling for others and whiling away time and energy with alcohol.

He got a little money by letting others paint pictures of him. He drank too much. He still talked of his great masterpiece. And he believed that it was his special duty to do everything possible to help Sue and Johnsy.

Is this last goal—helping the women—yet another form of procrastinating and avoiding his personal artistic goal? When Sue tells him about Johnsy’s desire to die when the last leaf falls, Behrman angrily rejects the foolish idea. He agrees to sit for Sue’s painting while reiterating,

Someday I shall paint my masterpiece, and we shall all go away from here.

As vague as it is, his goal is selfless; he does not specify exactly what his masterpiece is, just that it is a means to an end for all of them: escape. Behrman’s final masterpiece is a realistic painting that mimics the last leaf on the tree:

dark green near the branch. But at the edges it was turning yellow with age. There it was hanging from a branch nearly twenty feet above the ground.

Behrman keeps his goal secret (unlike the women who admit their goals to each other) and proactively takes it upon himself to go out and perch on a ladder in the cold, wet winter night to paint. He sacrifices his own life in order to paint this last leaf and thus prevent Johnsy from giving up on her life. She escapes death, Behrman escapes from a drunken life of unfulfilled ambition, and Sue escapes from worry and sadness.

At the end, a revived and hopeful Johnsy renews her goals, telling Sue,

Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how bad I was. It is wrong to want to die. I’ll try to eat now. But first bring me a looking-glass, so that I can see myself. And then I’ll sit up and watch you cook...someday I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.

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Sue, Johnsy, and Behrman are alike in being struggling artists, specifically painters, in the Bohemian Greenwich Village district of New York City that attracts them because of its charm and low rents. All three are also kind people.

Sue and Johnsy are young women who appear, from the way they speak English, to have been born in the United States. Mr. Behrman is an older man who has come to the country from Germany. All three are goodhearted people, but Johnsy, because of her pneumonia, has given up on life.

Behrman appears gruff, but unlike the two young women, he has the foresight to use his skills to save Johnsy's life. When he finds out that Johnsy has decided that she will die after the last leaf has fallen from a vine she can see clinging to a wall outside her window, he takes action. He paints a leaf on the vine that is so realistic it fools Johnsy. When it doesn't fall, as, of course, it can't, Johnsy has time to recover from her illness.

A key difference between Sue, Johnsy, and Mr. Behrman is that while they all are compassionate, Mr. Behrman is the only one of them who takes pragmatic action to save another person's life. He paints a masterpiece in his leaf not only because it is so realistic, but because he sacrifices his own life by creating it in the rain—and his sacrifice saves Johnsy.

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Sue and Johnsy both share a love of art, food, and fashion. The text specifically mentions this when it says that the two "found their tastes in art, chicory salad, and bishop sleeves so congenial" that they decide to have a joint studio.

However, there are significant differences between the two. For example, Sue is more proactive and optimistic than Johnsy is. When Johnsy gets sick, Sue takes emotional and physical action to restore her health. She brings in her drawing board and whistles to try and lift Johnsy's depression. She tries to get Johnsy to take broth and eat so that she can gain the nutrition and physical strength to overcome her illness. She tries to convince Johnsy that her chances of beating pneumonia are good, saying that the doctor said her chances of survival were ten to one instead of the doctor's real statement that her chance to live was one in ten.

Johnsy is much more pessimistic and reactive. She simply waits to die and convinces herself that when the last leaf falls, her life will end. She refuses to eat the broth that Sue offers her, believing that there is nothing that will restore her health. She tells Sue that she will not need to buy her the port wine that she loves because she feels she will not be alive to enjoy it.

In short, while Sue acts continually to help Johnsy, Johnsy believes with certainty that her pneumonia cannot be overcome. Sue has hope, but Johnsy is hopeless. The differing reactions that the two characters take towards the situation of Johnsy's sickness reveal their true opposing character traits.

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All three of O. Henry's characters in "The Last Leaf" live in the quaint Greenwich Village where "the art people soon came prowling."  But, while Sue and Johnsy are young, aspiring artists, old Behrman is an effete artist, who has "always been about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it."  Instead, he subsists on income he earns by posing an artist's model with his impish body and "head of a satyr."  Yet, all of them have their dreams;  Behrman his masterpiece, Johnsy has dreamt of painting the Bay of Naples, and Sue perseveres in her drawing in hopes of recognition.

Certainly, there is a bond among them.  When Johnsy falls ill, Sue does everthing she can to encourage her friend's will to live. She speaks positively to her friend, 

"Dear! dear!...Think of me if you won't think of yourself.  What would I do?"

Behrman is angered that Johnsy would despair so easily, but, of course, he cries; then, his efforts to save her from succumbing to death are heroic.   Indeed, it is the bond among them that saves Johnsy, with Behrman becoming the sacrificial victim of age who preserves youth by finally painting his "masterpiece."

 

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