The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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The Last Leaf Summary

The Last Leaf” is a well-known short story by O. Henry.

  • Sue and Johnsy are artists and roommates in Greenwich Village, New York. One November, Johnsy develops pneumonia.
  • Johnsy, who is very ill, becomes fixated on counting the leaves falling from a vine near her window. When the last falls, she says she will die.
  • Johnsy watches and waits, but the last leaf does not fall, and her health begins to improve.
  • Sue and Johnsy’s neighbor, a painter named Behrman, contracts severe pneumonia himself after going out in a storm to paint the last leaf on the wall for Johnsy.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The classic short story "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry begins with a description of Greenwich Village, New York. The streets lie at odd curves and angles, and artistic people have been drawn there by its low rents and quaint ambiance.

Two women, one from California and the other from Maine, live together on the third floor of a brick building in the artists' colony that Greenwich Village has become. Their names are Sue and Joanna, whose nickname is Johnsy. They met in May while eating at a restaurant, found that they had similar tastes, and decided to share a studio.

Now it is November, the weather is cold, and the Village has been struck by an epidemic of pneumonia. Many people in the artists' colony have become ill. Johnsy contracts pneumonia, and she is so sick that she lies on her bed and barely moves. All she does is look out the window at the opposite building.

A doctor examines Johnsy and calls Sue aside to share with her his diagnosis. He gives Johnsy only a small chance to live. He explains that her odds would increase if she manifested interest in something happening in the future. Sue says that Johnsy always wanted to go and paint the Bay of Naples, but the doctor replies that he was thinking more of a man in Johnsy's life. Sue replies that there isn't one. The doctor advises that if Johnsy can become interested in something in her life, she will have a better chance of surviving the illness.

Sue weeps in her despondency. She then dries her tears, begins to sing, and carries her art supplies into the room where Johnsy is lying. As Sue sketches a picture of a cowboy for a magazine cover, she hears Johnsy faintly saying something and hurries over to her side. Johnsy is looking out the window and counting backwards. Sue sees nothing outside but a bare yard, the brick wall of a house, and a vine with a few leaves left climbing the wall.

Sue asks Johnsy what she is doing, and Johnsy explains that she is counting down the leaves as they fall off the vine. When the last one falls, Johnsy knows that she will die. Sue attempts to talk Johnsy out of this obsession without success. Johnsy doesn't want to take any nourishment, because she is convinced that she will pass away before nightfall.

Sue makes Johnsy promise to close her eyes for a while because Sue doesn't want Johnsy to keep looking at the vine, but she can't close the shade because she needs the light to finish her drawing. Johnsy agrees but tells Sue to let her know as soon as she is finished.

Sue goes downstairs to the apartment of an old man named Behrman because she needs him to model for her. Behrman is a failed painter who has always wanted to compose a masterpiece. Now, he drinks heavily and gets angry easily, but he is very protective towards Sue and Johnsy. Sue explains Johnsy's obsession with the vine to Behrman, and Behrman scoffs and calls it foolish. When they go upstairs so that Behrman can pose for Sue, Johnsy is asleep.

Johnsy does not wake up until the next morning. When Sue pulls up the shade from the window, one solitary leaf still clings to the vine. Johnsy comments that this last leaf will fall during the day, and then she will die. However, the leaf does not fall.

In the evening, there is a storm of wind and rain. The next morning, though, when Johnsy again demands that Sue open the shade, the final leaf still clings to the vine. Johnsy decides that this leaf has given her hope and that she was wrong to want to die. A short time later, she tells Sue that she would someday like to paint the Bay of Naples.

After the doctor arrives and examines Johnsy, he tells Sue that Johnsy's prognosis has much improved. However, Old Behrman downstairs has contracted a severe case of pneumonia. The doctor is transferring him to the hospital for his comfort, but he says Behrman will surely die there.

The next day, the doctor comes for a third time, and he tells Sue that Johnsy will recover with sufficient care and nutrition. That afternoon, Sue tells Johnsy a story about Old Behrman. He was found in his apartment soaking wet and very cold. Nearby were a lantern, a ladder, brushes, and a palette with green and yellow paint. He had gone out in the rainstorm and painted the last leaf onto the wall, sacrificing his own life to save Johnsy's. The last leaf on the brick wall is the masterpiece he had always wanted to paint.

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