The Last Leaf Characters
The main characters in “The Last Leaf” are Sue, Johnsy, and Mr. Behrman.
- Sue, a young artist originally from Maine, is Johnsy’s roommate. She takes care of Johnsy while Johnsy is sick.
- Johnsy is a young artist from California. She contracts pneumonia at the beginning of the story and is given a slim chance of survival.
- Mr. Behrman, a painter, is Sue and Johnsy’s neighbor. When Sue tells him that Johnsy believes she will die when the last leaf falls, he goes out in a storm to paint the leaf on the wall, developing severe pneumonia in the process.
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—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.
“Old Behrman” is a painter who lives on the ground floor of the same building as Sue and Johnsy. He is over sixty years old, with a thick accent and a “Moses beard curling down from the head of a satyr along the body of an imp.” Despite his long artistic career, he has never painted anything significant, though he talks of the masterpiece he will someday create. In the meantime, he makes a little money as an artists’ model and drinks gin “to excess.”
Behrman considers himself “especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above.” He is impatient with Johnsy’s ideas—“dot silly pusiness,” he calls it—and blustery in his conversation with Sue, but he clearly cares about them both. “Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away,” he says, including the women in his dreams for a better future. After seeing the ivy leaf on which Johnsy’s life hangs, Behrman goes out into the freezing rain to paint a replacement for it. Given the weather and his recent exposure to Johnsy’s pneumonia, it can be inferred that he knowingly sacrifices himself to save her. He arguably paints his masterpiece in the process.
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 Johnsy’s recovery.
Pneumonia is not a human character in “The Last Leaf,” but O. Henry anthropomorphizes it through the first few paragraphs of the story. Mr. Pneumonia is “a cold, unseen stranger” and a “red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer.” He moves differently through different neighborhoods, “strid[ing] boldly” through the east side of town but moving much more slowly through the “maze” of Greenwich Village.” In contrast to the other men in the story, Mr. Pneumonia is explicitly “not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman.”