The Last Leaf Themes
The main themes in “The Last Leaf” are the triumph of the human spirit, appearances versus reality, and the interconnectedness of humans.
- The triumph of the human spirit: “The Last Leaf” emphasizes the importance of maintaining hope and connection to others, even in dire circumstances.
- Appearances versus reality: Both Johnsy and Behrman are deep, noble, and ultimately hopeful characters, though initial impressions might suggest otherwise.
- The interconnectedness of humans: Sue’s and Behrman’s acts of compassion have enormous impacts on Johnsy’s life.
Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691
The Triumph of the Human Spirit
O. Henry's “The Last Leaf” centers around three struggling artists in Greenwich Village. The story is set in the midst of a pneumonia outbreak, and at the start of the story, Johnsy, a young painter, is afflicted with the illness. A doctor places her odds of survival at one in ten, in part because Johnsy is dispirited, convinced as she is that she is going to die. She has taken to watching a vine outside her window, watching its leaves get blown off in the wind. She intends to survive only until the last leaf is blown away, after which point she will presumably expire. Concerned by Johnsy’s dire outlook, her friends Sue and Behrman encourage her to hold onto life. Eventually, as Johnsy continues watching the last leaf endure against the wind for several days, her own desire to live is rekindled. By the end of the story, she has beaten the odds and recovered, despite the doctor’s grim odds. The story suggests that even small odds must be seized, and hope must be sustained.
Johnsy’s struggles are thematically intertwined with those of Behrman, an old, failed artist who continues to cling to dreams of someday painting his masterpiece. As the end of the story reveals, Behrman paints a copy of the last leaf onto the vine, thereby inspiring Johnsy to live. At the end of his life, Behrman has painted his masterpiece, and so he achieves an aesthetic triumph, just as Johnsy achieves the triumph of her recovery.
Appearances Versus Reality
In Johnsy and Behrman, O. Henry has created two characters whose personalities contradict the surface impressions they present. Behrman is gruff and a heavy drinker. Now in his sixties, he has failed in his ambitions as a painter. Johnsy is a young painter whose ambitions—and life—are severely jeopardized when she contracts pneumonia. Throughout most of the story, her attitude is one of futility and fatalism. Both of these characters give surface impressions of their personalities that are ultimately be proven to be incomplete or false.
After her period of despondency, Johnsy shows a surprising resilience. She regains the will to live and eventually returns to health. The strength of the last leaf, artificial though it may be, inspires Johnsy to tap into her own stores of strength. As gruff and unpleasant as Behrman might be, his unpleasant qualities conceal a genuine nobility of spirit. He willingly puts his own health on the line to help Johnsy. Ultimately, he dies in the hope that Johnsy might live. It can even be argued that his artistic failures are redeemed by his creation of the facsimile leaf, whose lifelike qualities inspire Johnsy’s recovery.
The Interconnectedness of Humans
Through much of “The Last Leaf,” Johnsy herself is resigned to her death. In the process, she underestimates the degree to which her existence is shared with the lives of the other people in her life: these people who have been affected by her existence, and who affect her own existence in turn.
The story’s perspective primarily follows Sue, who cares for Johnsy in her sickness. She tries to raise her friend’s spirits, even as she conceals her own emotional distress. Early in this story, after the doctor has told Sue of Johnsy’s low odds of survival, Sue breaks down crying. But she proceeds to conceal that pain when she goes to check in on Johnsy, presenting a cheerful facade. Although Sue fears for Johnsy’s life, she remains a force of optimism and encouragement.
Johnsy’s life is also touched by Behrman, who paints a copy of the final leaf on the vine, knowing Johnsy will be watching and waiting for that leaf to fall. Behrman’s act is one of ultimate generosity, for he risks his own life in order to save Johnsy’s. In the end, Behrman dies, having given Johnsy the gift of recovery. Behrman’s life has been touched in turn, for he has received the gift of inspiration. One can argue that it is Johnsy’s failing health that inspires Behrman to finally create his masterpiece.