The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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Analyze the friendship between Sue and Johnsy in "The Last Leaf."

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The friendship between Sue and Johnsy in "The Last Leaf" is especially close, despite the women not having known each other for very long. Sue is the one who cares for Johnsy during her illness and receives the updates from the doctor.

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"The Last Leaf” tells the story of the friendship between Sue and Johnsy and their neighbor Behrman, who makes the ultimate sacrifice to help Johnsy get over pneumonia that will otherwise result in her death.

The two women have many things in common and formed a fast and strong bond after they met at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. When Johnsy falls ill, her doctor tells Sue that he has little hope of Johnsy recovering from the pneumonia, particularly as it seems that Johnsy has no will to fight the disease. Sue is desperate to help her friend.

During Johnsy’s illness, Sue arranges her art supplies near Johnsy’s bed so that they can be together while Sue paints in the hopes that this will lift Johnsy’s spirits and help her want to fight the illness. The doctor asks Sue if there is a man in Johnsy’s life, and Sue replies, in surprise,

“A man?” said Sue. “Is a man worth—No, doctor. There is not a man.”

The interesting thing about Sue’s response is her wonder that the doctor believes a man would be worth fighting the pneumonia for. One possible takeaway is that both Sue and Johnsy are independent women who have come from other parts of the country to find career and financial success in New York City and have no thoughts of entering into a romantic relationship with a man until they have advanced further in their chosen careers. Another read is that the two women are more than just roommates sharing an apartment to lower their individual costs and to find some companionship in an otherwise lonely city.

This could be the author’s subtle way of communicating that the women themselves are involved in a romantic relationship with one another. Sue acts, in some ways, as the provider of their family unit when she tells Johnsy that she needs to sell the painting she is working on to buy food to help Johnsy get well.

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The first thing to mention about the friendship between Sue and Johnsy is that the two became close despite not knowing each other for very long. The story, which begins with Johnsy getting sick, begins in November, and the two had met at a restaurant just six months earlier. Their decision to share a studio was based on pragmatic reasons: They were both artists, they had similar tastes, and both needed an affordable place to stay.

It is evident that they quickly became fast friends rather than just roommates. It seems that Sue has taken the place of family members for Johnsy, since it is Sue that the doctor summons to share his diagnosis, and the heartbreaking news that Johnsy is likely to die unless she finds a reason to stay alive.

Sue and Johnsy have clearly gotten to know each other very well, as Sue knows that one of Johnsy's dreams was to paint the Bay of Naples. Despite not having known Johnsy very long, Sue is devastated at the news of her severe illness, which tells us that the women have come to mean a lot to each other in a short time. Looking after Johnsy becomes Sue's top priority, which speaks of a close and loving friendship between the two.

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In O. Henry's poignant story in which two young aspiring artists become "congenial" enough to find a studio apartment together in Greenwich Village, Maine-born Sue worries about her Californian friend, Johanna, whom she calls Johnsy.  For, Johnsy has contracted pneumonia in the cold November of New York.  Having called a doctor to their studio, Sue learns from him that Johnsy has only a slim chance of living because she has lost her will to live.  He tells Sue that she must get Johnsy interested in something that will inspire her to get well.

Now, Sue is a true friend who dearly loves Johnsy.  She tries to motivate Johnsy by humming and being cheerful as she sits by her friend drawing.  But, when she realizes the Johnsy has counted the leaves that have fallen from a vine, she "looks solicitously out of the window."  Calling her friend "dear," Sue asks Johnsy what she counts.  When Johnsy tells her that with the fall of the last leaf from the vine she must go, too.  Sue acts scornful of "such nonsense"; speaking positively, she tells Johnsy that her thoughts about death are "naughty."  For, says Sue, who lies in order to convince Johnsy, the doctor has said that her chances of getting well were "ten to one."

Sue pretends that the situation with Johnsy is not of the magnitude that it is; in her love and hope, she acts as though Johnsy will soon be well.  However, she is truly worried.  So, she begs Johnsy to close her eyes because she needs the light in order to continue her drawings.  Johnsy agrees, but she tells Sue to hurry as she wants to go down like the last leaf. she goes to Mr. Behrman, informing him of the gravity of Johnsy's condition, hoping there is something he can do. Angered that Johnsy is ill,  Behrman complains, then, comes to pose, Sue takes him outside to look at the barren vine with one last leaf. 

So greatly concerned is Sue about her friend that she effects the change in Johnsy's psyche that causes her to become well. Sue's determination to do what she can for her friend saves Johnsy's life.  There is no doubt that Sue loves Johnsy as she has thought about what the doctor has told her and done everything she can to save Johnsy, even convincing Behrman enough that he paints the last leaf onto the glass of the window outside.

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