“The Last Leaf” takes place in Greenwich Village, a bohemian neighborhood in New York City, sometime in the early 20th century. The narrator remarks that the labyrinthine, winding streets of the neighborhood make it an ideal home for artists, since debt collectors find the area difficult to navigate.
Greenwich Village is a haven for poor artists and bohemian young people, and O. Henry depicts a vibrant creative community. However, the “starving artist” existence has its costs, such as poor living conditions, shortage of food, and exposure to cold and sickness. It’s also worth noting that Greenwich Village has historically been home to a large portion of New York’s lesbian and gay population—a fact which becomes significant in light of Henry’s implication that the two female protagonists may be romantically involved.
The story centers on Sue and Johnsy, two young women artists who met in a restaurant, discovered their shared tastes in art, and decided to live and work together. They share an inexpensive studio at the top of a run-down apartment building. When winter falls, a stranger named “Mr. Pneumonia” visits the neighborhood, and people begin to fall ill. Johnsy, too, becomes grievously ill with a case of pneumonia.
The basis of Sue and Johnsy’s friendship is a shared interest in art: from the beginning, their relationship is inseparable from their creative interests. This backstory provides context for Sue and Johnsy’s intense emotional attachment to one another, not simply because both women share an interest in art, but also because being unmarried female artists makes them both outsiders. That Henry characterizes pneumonia as a strange male visitor to the neighborhood perhaps helps to further establish men as an antagonistic presence in the lives of these two unusual women.
A doctor visits and tells Sue that Johnsy has a one in ten chance of living, and that her only chance is to “want to live,” since depression can be as fatal as pneumonia. Without wanting to live, the doctor’s medicine will have no effect and she won’t regain her health. The doctor wonders if Johnsy is depressed about something in particular. Sue mentions her unfulfilled ambition to paint the Bay of Naples, but the doctor dismisses this and asks if Johnsy is depressed over a man. Sue tells him firmly that his suspicion is wrong, and there is no man in Johnsy’s life.
The doctor’s contemptuous response to Sue’s suggestion that Johnsy might be depressed over frustrated artistic ambitions demonstrates prevailing attitudes about gender at the time: the doctor thinks that romantic troubles are worth a woman’s concern, but art is not. The doctor’s diagnosis also reveals a close linkage between hope and health; Johnsy won’t live, he says, unless she decides she has something to look forward to. Sue’s firm assurance that there is no man in Johnsy’s life might suggest that she knows this because they are romantically involved, or simply that she knows Johnsy is focused on traveling and developing her talents as an artist, and not on marriage and children.
Sue sits by Johnsy’s bedside working on an illustration for a magazine while Johnsy counts the leaves falling from the vine outside her window. When the last leaf falls to the ground, Johnsy asserts, she will die. Sue tells Johnsy that she’s being silly and that the doctor has given her a good chance of recovery (which is a lie). She promises Johnsy that she will buy more food and wine after she sells the illustration, but Johnsy is unresponsive to Sue’s attempts to cheer her up, and she asks Sue to draw in the other room. Johnsy says that she wants to “turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves.”
Sue’s work on the magazine establishes her economically precarious condition: she can only buy more food for Johnsy after she has sold the illustration, suggesting that money is short. Still, Sue plans to do everything possible to help Johnsy, which shows the strength of her attachment: she cooks, cleans and cares for her friend in her illness, while also acting as the primary breadwinner in their household. She knows how important it is that Johnsy not lose hope, so she conceals the news of the doctor’s pessimistic prognosis. Despite all these efforts, however, Johnsy is increasingly cold to Sue, turning away from friendship as she psychologically prepares herself for death. Johnsy’s desire to “go sailing down” like one of the leaves demonstrates her fading hope and her loss of the will to live.
Sue goes to visit their downstairs neighbor, an old, alcoholic, and unsuccessful artist named Behrman who earns a small income posing as a model for artists in Greenwich Village. Behrman, who has tried and failed his whole life to paint a masterpiece, is fiercely protective of Sue and Johnsy. When Sue tells Behrman about Johnsy’s fixation on the last leaf, he is contemptuous of what he calls her “foolishness,” but he agrees to come up to their studio to pose for Sue’s illustration. While Johnsy sleeps, Sue and Behrman look solemnly at the ivy vine, and then Sue begins her work.
After decades of failure, Behrman is still trying to paint his “masterpiece.” He is initially harsh to Sue, deriding Johnsy’s “foolishness” for thinking that leaves could affect her health: like Sue, he points out that the falling of the leaves has nothing to do with whether or not Johnsy will recover. But his willingness to come upstairs and pose, as well as his obvious concern for Johnsy’s welfare, prove that he in fact cares deeply about his upstairs neighbors. In this way, O. Henry suggests that underneath Behrman’s gruff exterior—the product of a long, hard life of social alienation, economic struggle, and creative disappointment—he still has the capacity to connect with others. The significance of his long, solemn look at the ivy vine is only revealed later: perhaps Behrman had decided then to paint the illusion of a leaf on the wall outside her window.
There is a violent storm during the night. But in the morning, when Sue pulls up the shade covering their window, the last leaf is still clinging tenaciously to the vine. Johnsy was sure that it would have fallen during the night, but she says that it will fall today instead, and when it does she will go, too. Sue begs her to reconsider, but Johnsy is silent. The narrator notes how lonely it is to face death, and says that this depression possessed Johnsy increasingly as “one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed.”
When the last leaf (which has actually been painted onto the wall by Behrman) survives the night’s storm, Johnsy is surprised, but states that it will surely fall during the day, a glum prediction that demonstrates her continuing depression. Even in the face of Sue’s pleas, Johnsy is still convinced that the pneumonia will kill her, and seems determined to sever herself from human connection as a way of preparing for death. Paradoxically, this shows the strength of Johnsy’s attachment to Sue: her attempts to dissolve the bonds of friendship before dying suggests that it is human intimacy which “binds” people to life.
After another night of wind and rain fails to shake the last leaf from the vine, Johnsy sits up and asks for soup and a mirror, remarking that “something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was…it is a sin to want to die.” A little later, Johnsy mentions her ambition to paint the Bay of Naples. The doctor visits and gives Johnsy a good prognosis (“even chances”), predicting that she will recover.
Johnsy finally sees the error of her ways: if the leaf that she had imagined as a symbol of her coming death can survive, then she can, too. Her statement that “it is a sin to want to die” has religious implications, suggesting that she may have found faith again along with hope. Her request for food and a mirror as well as her statement that she hopes to paint the Bay of Naples demonstrate that her hope has returned along with her health. The doctor’s assessment of her vastly-improved odds of survival—“even chances,” when before it was “one in ten”—links her improved medical prognosis to the redemptive hope given to her by the last leaf. This underscores one of the story’s central messages: that hope and life are inextricably intertwined.
The doctor tells the women that he has to visit another patient—Behrman has caught pneumonia and needs to be taken to the hospital. The next day, Sue tells Johnsy that Behrman has died. The janitor found him sick in his room dressed in cold, wet clothes as though he’d been out in the storm. In his room, Behrman had a ladder and painting materials, which reveals that he had stayed out all night, painting the image of a leaf onto the wall so that Johnsy would think the last leaf had survived the storm. Finally, Sue remarks, Behrman has painted his masterpiece.
“The Last Leaf” ends with one of O. Henry’s famous surprise endings: the “last leaf” is in fact a painting by Behrman. This seems to confirm what Sue and Behrman believed all along: that it wasn’t the survival of the leaf that mattered, but the rekindling of Johnsy’s hope. In a further twist, it is not Johnsy who dies, but Behrman. Despite the loneliness of Behrman’s death, his sacrifice was not in vain. For, by referring to this selfless act of sacrifice as Behrman’s “masterpiece,” Sue is referring both to the quality of the painting—which is extraordinarily realistic—and to the love and generosity of the act itself, which had given Johnsy the will to live.