Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.
Overview of the Story
O. Henry's The Last Leaf tells the story of Johnsy, a young artist who catches pneumonia in the late autumn and comes very close to dying of it. Her roommate, Sue, does everything she can to nurse Johnsy back to health, but Johnsy becomes convinced that she is destined to die when the last leaf falls from the tree outside her window. Sue mentions Johnsy's theory about the leaf to their downstairs neighbor, Mr. Behrman, who is also a struggling artist. Unbeknownst to Johnsy, Behrman goes outside during a terrible winter storm to paint a leaf onto the tree so that Johnsy will not convince herself to die when she sees the final leaf fall. His plan works, and Johnsy recovers; Behrman, however, catches pneumonia while he is out in the storm and ends up dying.
The Role of Sue in the Story
Although Johnsy's sickness and recovery are the focus of the The Last Leaf, Sue plays a critical role in the work. Most of The Last Leaf is told from Sue's perspective. This is not to say that the story is told from her first-person perspective -- it is not told in Sue's own voice -- however, most of the action is described from her point of view.
Sue as Connector and Communicator
Beyond offering us her perspective on most events, Sue is also the main connector and communicator within the story. For example, Sue is the one who tells Behrman about Johnsy's illness and Johnsy's conviction that she will die when the last leaf falls. It is Sue's connection between the two characters that guarantees Behrman's intervention and Johnsy's recovery. Similarly, Sue manages the communication between Johnsy and her doctor. Although the doctor obviously examines Johnsy, we get the impression that he is more forthcoming with Sue than with the patient herself.
What Do We Know about Sue Herself?
Although the story focuses on Johnsy, we are still able to learn a little about Sue. At the beginning of The Last Leaf, O. Henry tells us that she is from Maine, and that she and Johnsy met at Delmonico's on Eighth Street and bonded over their shared tastes in ''art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves.'' As far as direct descriptions go, this is really all we get. Most of what we learn about Sue comes from hints from her interactions with other people in the story, particularly with Johnsy
Sue's Relationship with Johnsy
We get the sense throughout the story that Sue is the more mature or adult of the two women; that she acts as something of a caregiver to Johnsy. For example, Sue feels distraught after her conversation with the doctor, but conceals it from Johnsy:
''After the doctor had gone Sue went into the workroom and cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into Johnsy's room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime.''
Sue as a Parent Figure
This might at first appear like the natural thing to do; after all, it would not help to upset Johnsy. But when we read what Sue tells Johnsy about the doctor's prognosis, Sue's behavior appears somewhat more like that of a parent dealing with a child:
''…He said the chances were ten to one! Why, that's almost as good a chance as we have in New York when we ride on the street cars or walk past a new building. Try to take some broth now, and let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell the editor man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork chops for her greedy self.''
It is one thing for Sue to hide her despair from Johnsy; it is quite another to lie to her as though she is not an adult who should know the truth. Furthermore, Sue uses a tone (e.g. ''let Sudie go back to her drawing'') that is generally reserved for children.
Sue's Explanation to Johnsy at the End
Sue continues to behave this way with Johnsy even after Johnsy has recovered. At the end of the story, Sue breaks the news to Johnsy that Behrman has died. She explains to her how it happened as well:
''…and -- look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn't you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it's Behrman's masterpiece -- he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.''
This is an interesting scene: Sue continues to use the tone that one might normally reserve for children, but she also tells Johnsy the truth about Behrman dying to save her life. One wonders in this scene whether on some level Sue wants Johnsy to feel somewhat guilty that her childlike fantasy ended up costing a man his life. There is no way to know, of course, as this is where the story ends.
The Last Leaf focuses on Johnsy, but Sue is a critical character because of the central role that she plays: she provides the perspective for most of the action and she connects the characters together. We learn much of what we know about Sue through her interaction with other characters. The most important of these is Johnsy, whom Sue tends to treat like a child.
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