The Last Leaf by O. Henry: Summary & Analysis

The Last Leaf by O. Henry: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:23 Mr. Pneumonia
  • 0:55 Doctor's Analysis &…
  • 1:39 The Falling Leaves
  • 1:57 Mr. Behrman & Johnsy's Illness
  • 3:40 Analysis
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

O. Henry's ''The Last Leaf'' is a short story about three artists and an outbreak of pneumonia in their neighborhood. This lesson summarizes and analyzes this story with reference to key plot points.

The Setting

O. Henry's short story 'The Last Leaf' is set in an area of Greenwich Village that functions as an artists' colony. The story focuses on the lives of two artists who share a studio: Sue and Johnsy (short for Joanna). The two met at a New York restaurant in May, and our story takes place in November.

Mr. Pneumonia

We learn almost immediately that Johnsy is suffering from a serious case of pneumonia. O. Henry personifies the disease, which is when an author gives human characteristics to something non-human, by referring to it as 'Mr. Pneumonia' and writing about it as though it can act like a human would behave:

'Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead. . .'

The Doctor's Analysis and Dismissiveness

After one of the doctor's visits with Johnsy, he tells Sue that she would probably recover if she believed she could. Since she doesn't, the doctor gives her one chance in ten of recovery.

In an interesting exchange, the doctor asks Sue whether anything matters enough to Johnsy to get her excited again about living. Sue responds that she has always talked about wanting to paint the Bay of Naples one day. The doctor responds:

'Paint? -bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice - a man, for instance?'

This seems like a strange response to offer in an artists' studio; Johnsy's art is clearly very important to her. The doctor also suggests that Sue should get Johnsy excited about the 'new winter styles' (upcoming fashions), which also seems like something that will probably not interest Johnsy.

The Falling Leaves

Following the doctor's visit, Sue cries for awhile and then gets back to painting. After awhile, she hears a sound coming from Johnsy's room. It turns out that Johnsy is counting the leaves that have yet to fall off the tree outside her window. Johnsy explains to Sue that she believes she will die as soon as the last leaf falls.

Mr. Behrman and Johnsy's Illness

At this stage, we are introduced to Mr. Behrman, an artist who lives downstairs from the two women. Sue contacts him because she would like him to pose for a piece she is working on. We learn that Mr. Behrman has never attained much success as an artist and has always been prepared to paint his masterpiece, which he has yet to begin.

Sue confides in Mr. Behrman that Johnsy has pneumonia and is convinced that she will die as soon as the last leaf falls from the tree. Mr. Behrman finds this ridiculous, and tells Sue as much. Sue chides him for not being more compassionate. Mr. Behrman explains that he will still pose for Sue, and adds:

'Gott! dis is not any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away.'

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