The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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What is the mood of "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry?

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This story has a breezy, fast-paced feeling despite dense description and a plot about illness and death. The opening paragraph sets the tone, even ending with an exclamation point:

In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called "places." These "places" make strange angles and curves. One street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!

But underlying the possibly frivolous reasons ("they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth Avenue, and became a 'colony' ") that artists gather in Greenwich Village—home, at that time, of cheap rents—a more serious reality looms. Pneumonia arrives and with it the threat of death. Pneumonia too, however, is described in a breezy, comic, detached manner as "not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman."

The breezy detached feeling continues even as Johnsy contracts pneumonia. O. Henry, perhaps reacting against Victorian death bed scenes, is trying to catch the modern tone of the artists' colony. Johnsy is convinced she will die, and the doctor tells her roommate that Johnsy must have hope in order to live.

As we know, an ironic twist ends the story. There's even a breezy quality to this, as Johnsy's roommate, Sue, tells Johnsy that the old artist Behrman, who lived upstairs, died of pneumonia caught while painting the leaf that kept Johnsy alive: "Ah, darling, it's Behrman's masterpiece—he painted it there the night the last leaf fell."

The feeling of the language is curiously at odds with the seriousness of the subject, forcing the reader to think all the more to absorb the gravity of what has happened.

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"The Last Leaf" by O. Henry is less funny and entertaining than other O. Henry stories, but it still carries a sarcastic tone that shadows much of it; it's like he is telling the story but not quite taking it seriously himself.  He makes a bit of fun of the residents of the neighborhood that the story is set in, Greenwich Village.  He writes:

"So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth avenue, and became a 'colony.'"

So, the story starts off with that rather bemused and sarcastic tone, which he keeps a thread of throughout the entire story.  But, the mood turns a little bit more serious as he describes how Johnsy is hit by pneumonia.  So, he has introduced a very serious illness into a story that started off as satirical; do we take the piece seriously, or with amusment?  It's a rather odd combination that continues throughout the entire piece:  he introduces characters through insults and sarcasm, then asks us to care about those characters when bad things happen to them.

I provided links below to further discussions of the style and characters, and that should help a bit too; good luck!

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