The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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What is the exposition of "The Last Leaf"?

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The exposition of a narrative is the first part of it, in which background information on character and setting are provided. It also establishes the problem of the narrative.

Background information on character and setting:

In "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry, the exposition establishes the setting as winter in Greenwich Village, a small district west of Washington Square in New York. There are two main characters in this story: Johnsy (Joanna), who is from California, and Sue, who is from Maine. The two young women are aspiring artists who live in an upstairs apartment. They have met each other in the Village at one of the "Delmonico's" and have decided that they have enough in common to rent an artist's studio together.

The problem:

But in November "Mr. Pneumonia" strikes Johnsy, who is not acclimated to cold weather. Because she gives up hope, the doctor does not give Johnsy much of a chance of survival. So, he encourages her friend Sue to find something that will give Johnsy a desire to live. Sue calls upon Mr. Behrman, who lives downstairs, to model for her. When she talks with him, she tells him about Johnsy's despair and her wish to die when the last leaf falls from the vine on a building outside her window.

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Exposition refers to the "set up" of information in a story.  This includes the setting, the introduction of the characters, and the establishment of the conflict.

In "The Last Leaf", we learn that the story takes place in New York City, particularly Greenwich Village.  Sue and Johnsy are the main characters, roommates who have come to the city from other locales with an interest in art, suggesting they are both of a creative turn of mind.  Other characters include the doctor and Mr. Behrman, an old man and painter who lives on the ground floor of the building.

The story begins in November, and O. Henry personifies Pneumonia as if the condition is an unwelcome visitor to town.  This is the conflict - Johnsy has pneumonia, and has little chance of surviving.  The conflict is an internal one.  Johnsy is convinced she will die when the last leaf of the season falls off the ivy tree.  It isn't the disease that is dooming her - it is her own perception.

The rest of the story shows how true the effect of perception can be, as we see Johnsy get better from the influence of a trick being played upon her.  The end of the story is an exercise in irony, as the one to play the trick - Mr. Behrman - succumbs to the illness that was trying to take Johnsy.

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