One of the most famous of the O. Henry tales, “The Last Leaf” (1907) not only concludes with the usual O. Henry surprise ending, but, like “A Service of Love,” is conveyed with a narrative tone of sadness and even despair. Two young women artists, Sue and Joanna (Johnsy), share a brownstone in New York. In a cold and wintry November, Johnsy catches pneumonia (personified as an icy ravager who smites his victims as he strides through Greenwich Village) and has resigned herself to dying; the doctor gives her one chance in 10 unless she can find a reason to live. Johnsy tells the distraught Sue that with the fall of the last leaf on the ivy vine that clings to the wall outside her window, she will die. Sue reveals the situation to their failed artist friend Mr. Behrman; he poses for the sketch of an old hermit miner that Sue must finish for her editor; then Sue lies down to sleep for an hour. When she awakens, she and Johnsy look out the window to see that one leaf has survived the nighttime rains and gusty winds, encouraging Johnsy to disregard her previous “foolish” belief that she is near death. As she recovers, however, the doctor informs them that Mr. Behrman has died of pneumonia. He had been found soaking wet, his body lying next to a ladder, a lantern, and some paint brushes. The clear implication is that Behrman braved the cold and rain while printing the last leaf (which actually had fallen) on the wall so that Johnsy would not die.
This story, as have many of O. Henry’s, has been called implausible and sentimental. It nevertheless appeals to readers in the generosity of the selfless Mr. Behrman and in the uniqueness of the plot. The irony of Mr. Behrman’s losing his life to save Johnsy’s emanates from the same selflessness exhibited in the husband and wife in the well-known O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi.”
“The Last Leaf” may be interpreted from feminist and lesbian perspectives, too, to produce some intriguing readings. From a feminist viewpoint, the skeptical doctor and the male-personified illness try to undermine the women’s aspirations. The doctor asks Sue if Johnsy has anything worth thinking about to keep her alive, either a man or an interest in women’s fashions. Johnsy’s longings lie not in sex or clothing styles, but, Sue responds, in art: She hopes someday to travel to Italy to paint the Bay of Naples. From this perspective, the women emerge victorious: Helped by the old European artist, they defy the illness and the doctor and survive to continue their work as independent women artists. From the lesbian viewpoint, however, the story has a more somber message. Clearly Johnsy and Sue may be viewed as lesbians: Johnsy’s name is a masculinized version of Joanna; Sue alternately swaggers and whistles, and talks baby talk to Johnsy, calling herself Johnsy’s “Sudie.” Moreover, the story centers on Johnsy in bed, with Sue leaning her face on the pillow or putting her arm around her. Not only do the male doctor and Mr. Pneumonia attempt to break up the pair, but in the very survival of these women, a man, Mr. Behrman, must die—a plot suggesting a hostility toward lesbian women at the core of the story.
Henry, O. “The Last Leaf.” In The Collected Works of O. Henry. Vol. 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953.