Confined to her bed in the Greenwich Village apartment she shares with Sue, Johnsy (who is suffering from pneumonia) becomes preoccupied with a leaf on a vine outside her window. This leaf comes to symbolize her will to live; when the last leaf falls from the vine, she tells Sue, she will die. Their neighbor Mr. Behrman scoffs at the idea: “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.” Nevertheless, by painting the illusion of a “last leaf” on the wall outside Johnsy’s window, he gives her hope again—a gift which saves Johnsy’s life by reminding her that she still has a future.
The illusion of a leaf is able to keep Johnsy alive because “The Last Leaf” conflates physical and psychological illness. Though the doctor diagnoses Johnsy with pneumonia, he asserts that her real problem is that she’s lost the desire to live. He tells Sue that half of his medical work is useless if the patient herself doesn’t want to get better, and Johnsy seems to no longer hope to regain her health or imagine a future for herself. Because of this, he urges Sue to give Johnsy hope by asking her about new winter clothes, since “if she were interested in the future, her chances would be better.” Johnsy, though, insists that she is finished living and wants “to go sailing down, down, like one of those poor tired leaves,” which shows the extent of her psychological ailment.
When Johnsy sees that the last leaf has seemingly survived the storm against all odds, however, she regains her sense of hopefulness about the future. “I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” Johnsy says. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was…it is a sin to want to die.” Having come to the conclusion that she was wrong to lose hope, Johnsy sits up and begins to eat again, and the doctor pronounces her on the mend. Johnsy’s recovery is inextricable from her rediscovery of her hope for her future. It’s not winter clothes that excite her, as the doctor suggested, but the prospect of painting again: she tells Sue that she’d like to achieve her long-held dream of visiting Italy to paint the Bay of Naples.
Just as thoughts of her future paintings give Johnsy the hope to overcome her sickness, Behrman finds courage and hope for himself and his neighbors in the art he will someday create. “Some day I vill baint my masterpiece,” he says,” and ve shall all go away. Gott! yes.” It’s Behrman’s masterpiece—the illusionistic painting of the last leaf outside Johnsy’s window—that gives Johnsy hope. In a way, then, Behrman uses his art to transfer his own hope to Johnsy. Once Behrman has painted his masterpiece, thereby achieving his life’s work, he himself succumbs to pneumonia. This suggests that he, unlike Johnsy, no longer believes his best work is in front of him. Since he has just painted his masterpiece—which reminded Johnsy of her desire to paint her own masterpiece—he no longer has the will to live.
O. Henry therefore suggests that physical health is strongly related to hope for the future. For the artists in “The Last Leaf,” their hope for the future centers on fulfilling their life’s purpose: painting a masterpiece. As the doctor suggests, though, hope can come from many sources—all that matters for restoring physical health is that a person looks forward to something.
Hope and Health ThemeTracker
Hope and Health Quotes in The Last Leaf
[“W]henever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines. If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead of one in ten.”
[“]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.”
“Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning her worn face down to the pillow, “think of me, if you won't think of yourself. What would I do?”
But Johnsy did not answer. The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed.
“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.