The Last Leaf by O. Henry is a short story. The story is set in the early 20th century in the Greenwich Village of New York City. I did a little research about the context of the setting of the story and I found a correlation. It was an area popular amongst the diverse and vibrant community of artists. Also, there was an increase in immigrants to America from Europe.
The story focuses on two young women artists, Sue and Johnsy, who share a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. At the time, there is an epidemic of pneumonia in the city and during winter Johnsy falls sick. The doctor is not very optimistic about the chances of Johnsy’s recovery because she has decided that she is going to die. Johnsy becomes obsessed with the vine outside her window and tells Sue that when the last leaf falls, she will die.
Sue visits an older artist Behrman, who lives downstairs and still hopes to paint his masterpiece. In the beginning, after hearing about Johnsy’s theory of the last leaf he is unconvinced about the relation between these two things. The last leaf survives two nights of stormy weather. Upon seeing the last leaf intact, Johnsy feels hopeful and slowly starts to make a recovery. Behrman has stayed out all night in the storm to paint his masterpiece, the last leaf, but unfortunately, falls prey to pneumonia himself and dies a few days later.
Johnsy and Sue, both the women are struggling artists. Their dreams and expectations regarding their professional life are not going exactly to plan. Somewhere along the way, Johnsy has lost hope for a future, and this is clear with her belief that she is going to die. In a way, it is such a simple story of hope and will to live. Behrman is dismissive of Johnsy’s theory of the leaf on the vine, but he paints a realistic-looking leaf that gives Johnsy hope and will to survive. He does end up painting his masterpiece before he passes away, and it is Johnsy’s life.
There are some implicitly woven undertones throughout the story. Johnsy and Sue are young female artists who are unconventional in terms of society. Both are independent and willing to pursue their artistic passions. They find a lot of common ground with each other and are very close especially since they are different from what is expected of women at the time. Another prominent thing is the ‘starving artist’ life.
The three main characters of Johnsy, Sue, and Behrman are all artists. They can barely make ends meet with what they can earn through their art. It is hinted, that they live in an overcrowded and completely urbanized area because of cheap rent, which is also a gathering place for many artists. Their lives are the perfect example of ‘the starving artist’ life.
The Last Leaf by O. Henry is one of my favorite short stories of all time. It is written in such a simple way, yet it is so impactful. The ending of the story is slightly bittersweet. But, we can say that there is a better life ahead for the characters. I loved reading this story again.
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