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.