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Only five characters exist in O.

Henry’s short story ‘The Last Leaf,’ but their brief interactions with each other teach readers a valuable lesson about the power of relationships. This short story begins with an introduction of two young women: Sue, the protagonist, and Johnsy, Sue’s friend and roommate. Sue is a young artist from Maine living with Johnsy, another young artist, in Greenwich Village. When we meet these two young women, it is wintertime in New York City, and Johnsy is afflicted with pneumonia, an illness which is actually treated as a minor character in the story. Two male characters, the doctor and Old Behrens, also play important roles in the story.

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Meet Sue

Sue is devoted to her friend and roommate Johnsy who is very ill at this time. Sue talks openly with Johnsy about her fears of losing Johnsy to her illness. Sue also talks openly with Old Behrman about Johnsy, in a conversation that leads to the climax of the story. She tells him that, ”She is very ill and weak,’ said Sue, ‘and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies.” At times, Sue seems mature and independent, while at other times, she seems young and naive.

Sue doesn’t believe that the influence of a man could affect Johnsy’s recovery like the doctor suggests. Sue’s resistance could reflect either a deep inner strength and independence or a naivete to the ways of love.

Meet Johnsy

Johnsy is Sue’s roommate and a fellow artist. Johnsy is from California, and her spirits are dangerously low when we meet her. She is sick with pneumonia, causing her to feel weak and discouraged, and she describes her state of mind to Sue, stating that ”I’m tired of waiting.

I’m tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves.” She used to have a dream of going to Italy to paint the Bay of Naples, but even that fails to inspire Johnsy to recover as she lays stricken in her bed. Johnsy is under such strain that she believes she will die when the last leaf has fallen from the ivy vine outside of her window. The leaf symbolizes Johnsy’s dwindling hope of her own recovery.

Meet the Doctor

Though the Doctor is technically a minor character, he reveals deep insight into Johnsy’s state of mind and that of other patients who are gravely ill. He recognizes the limitations of his own medical knowledge and healing abilities and encourages Sue to help Johnsy to want to live. He states that ”I will do all that science, so far as it may filter through my efforts, can accomplish.

But whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 percent from the curative power of medicines.” Without a genuine zest for life, the doctor knows that Johnsy is unlikely to recover. As a minor character, the Doctor is somewhat superficially characterized, and much to Sue’s confusion, he thinks Johnsy is weak and wonders if Johnsy’s hopelessness could be explained by her pining away for a man. He does conclude though that Johnsy’s physical weakness is what is causing her health to fail.

Meet Old Behrman

Behrman lives in the same building as Sue and Johnsy. His crotchety and blustering manner hides a tender heart and a special attachment to Sue and Johnsy.

He is characterized as an unsuccessful painter with a strong Germanic accent whose main artistic function is as a model for other artists. When Sue tells Behrman about Johnsy’s fear that she will die when the last leaf falls off the ivy vine, he responds to Sue emotionally, saying ”Gott! dis is not any blace in which one so gooot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away.

Gott! yes.” Behrman ultimately gives his life for Johnsy, braving the winter cold and wet, to paint a leaf that functions to keep Johnsy’s spirits up and give her a more time to heal. Johnsy lives, but Behrman dies for his sacrifice; the masterpiece Behrman has always wanted to paint is that of the leaf and its impact on saving the life of someone he cares about. This was a much more important thing than earning him money or fame.

Lesson Summary

Four living characters and one non-living character bring the story of O. Henry’s ‘The Last Leaf’ to life. Behrman, the old neighbor of artists Sue and Johnsy, comes to their rescue in an unexpected way after the doctor makes it clear that Johnsy’s struggle with pneumonia is severe.

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