Johnsy, a young artist who is suffering from severe pneumonia, begins obsessively counting the leaves as they fall from a vine outside her window. When the last leaf falls, she tells her roommate Sue, she will die. Johnsy sees the last leaf as a symbol of her hold on life; when it falls to the ground she thinks that she too will “go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor tired leaves.” By contrast, both Sue and their downstairs neighbor Mr. Behrman deny that the leaf has any symbolic value at all. “What have old ivy leaves to do with you getting well?” asks Sue with “magnificent scorn.” Nonetheless, though, Behrman accepts that Johnsy identifies herself wholly with the leaf, and he goes out in the storm to paint an illusion of the last leaf on the wall, which restores Johnsy to health by reminding her that “it is a sin to want to die.” Thus, the leaf represents Johnsy (since its trajectory is parallel to hers), and it also represents the effects of symbolism, since Behrman’s purely symbolic gesture saves Johnsy’s life. Significantly, Behrman is a failed artist who has tried all his life to paint a masterpiece, and Sue declares that the leaf he paints is his masterpiece. This suggests that the symbolic power of art is best when it is used to help others.
The “Last Leaf” Quotes in The Last Leaf
[“]When the last one falls I must go, too. I've known that for three days. Didn't the doctor tell you?"
“Oh, I never heard of such nonsense,” complained Sue, with magnificent scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting well?”
“Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing. No, I will not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead. Vy do you allow dot silly business to come in der brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”
“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. Very well, Mr. Behrman, if you do not care to pose for me you needn’t. But I think you are a horrid old—old flibbertigibbet.”
“You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman. “Who said I will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf been trying to say dot I am ready to bose.”
“I've been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die. You may bring me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port in it, and—no, bring me a hand-minor first, and then pack some pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”
An hour later she said: “Sudie, some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”
The janitor found him on the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, 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.