The Last Leaf by O. Henry

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Characters

Sue

Sue is a young woman from Maine who shares an apartment with Johnsy. She is an inexperienced artist “pav[ing] her way to Art” through illustration work.

Much of Sue’s character is shown through her relationship with Johnsy. The two women have known each other for only about six months, but Sue is deeply devoted to Johnsy, whom she calls “dear” and “goosey.” She is committed to maintaining a brave face for Johnsy in the face of the latter’s illness, “[crying] a Japanese napkin to a pulp” after the doctor’s initial prognosis but then “swagger[ing] into Johnsy’s room . . . whistling ragtime.” Her conversation with Johnsy is similarly carefree: she reacts to Johnsy’s prediction about the ivy leaf “with magnificent scorn” and flips the doctor’s prognosis on its head, saying Johnsy’s chances of “getting well real soon” are ten to one. Sue tries to dissuade Johnsy from looking at the ivy leaves, but she is never able to disobey her friend’s orders to pull up the window shade so the vine can be seen.

Joanna (“Johnsy”)

Joanna—referred to as “Johnsy” throughout the story—is “a mite of a little woman” from California who shares a Greenwich Village studio with Sue. She is presumably an artist, like Sue, and she wishes to someday paint the Bay of Naples. She figures most prominently through her grave illness and her magical thinking regarding the ivy vine. The other characters in the story are developed through their caring for Johnsy.

As of the story’s beginning, Johnsy has contracted pneumonia. Lying in bed, she counts the leaves left on the ivy vine she can see through the window. She has “known” for days that when the last leaf falls, she will die. Despite Sue’s attempts to draw her out of her morbidity, Johnsy is adamant: “I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves.” After the last leaf has remained through two windy nights, Johnsy changes her mind, calling herself a “bad girl” for wanting to die. Her health improves rapidly thereafter, and only two days later, the doctor says she is “out of danger.” Her magical thinking holds throughout, though the story ends with her learning of Behrman’s intervention.

The Doctor

The doctor sees to Johnsy after she catches pneumonia. He is probably an older man, as he has “a shaggy, gray eyebrow.” He appears to be practical in the extreme, and he recognizes the limits of his powers: because Johnsy herself has decided that she is dying, he estimates her chance of survival at one in ten, regardless of his efforts. If Sue is able to elicit from Johnsy a sign of interest in the future—the doctor uses “new winter styles in cloak sleeves” as an example—he promises “a one-in-five chance for her.”

Less drastically than the pneumonia, the doctor is an intrusion of the outside world into the artistic space Sue and Johnsy have made for themselves. He is dismissive of Johnsy’s aspiration to paint the Bay of Naples, inquiring instead whether she has “anything on her mind worth thinking about twice—a man, for instance.” He is only depicted speaking to Sue, and on his second and third visits he frames Johnsy’s illness as a battle Sue herself is fighting. “You’ll win,” he tells her, and then “you’ve won,” acknowledging Sue’s deep investment in...

(The entire section is 891 words.)