Learning through Literature

The Last Leaf

an O. Henry short story

retold by Sandy Geiger

            In a little district of New York City called Greenwich Village, about 100 years ago, lived two young ladies named Sue and Johnsy. You may think that Johnsy is an odd name for a young lady but it is merely the nickname for Joanna. Greenwich Village was then—and still is—the area where artists often choose to live.

            Sue and Johnsy were each looking for a cheap place to live. They happened to meet at a small restaurant. They discovered that they both loved art, ethnic food and Greenwich Village. Sue was from Maine and was used to cold weather; Johnsy was from California, where the sun was usually shining. They met in May. By November, the weather had grown cold and windy.

            Mr. Pneumonia arrived in Greenwich Village and sought out the young, the old and the weak. It did not take Mr. Pneumonia long to find Johnsy, who was not used to the cold and windy weather. After his visit, she ended up in bed, weak, pale and hardly able to move.

            Of course, Sue called for the doctor to come and make her friend well. However, the doctor said that Johnsy was very ill and only had one chance in ten of recovering from her illness.

            “Your friend has made up her mind that she is not going to get well. Her only chance of recovering is if she wants to get well. Is there anything that she really, really desires to do?”

            Sue replied hesitantly, “Well, she really wants to paint the Bay of Naples.”

            The doctor laughed at that idea and wanted to know if she was interested in some young man. Sue did not think that Johnsy was interested in any young man.

“Well then,” said the doctor, “if you can get her to ask even one question about the latest clothing styles for winter, I’ll promise you a one-in-five chance for her instead of one-in-ten.”

Comprehension questions:

1.  Sue and Johnsy became roommates. What were the bases for their decision to share an apartment?

2.  What does the author mean when he writes about “Mr. Pneumonia?”

3.  What might have been the reason that Johnsy did not want to get well?

            Sue cried a lot after the doctor left. Then she dried her eyes and went bravely into Johnsy’s room, whistling a ragtime tune. Sue set up her art supplies so that she could work on a pen-and-ink drawing that she was making to illustrate a magazine story. As she was drawing the picture of a cowboy wearing elegant, horseshow-riding trousers and a monocle, she heard a low sound coming from Johnsy’s bed.

            Johnsy was looking out the window and counting backwards: “Twelve, eleven, ten.” There was a pause, and then the counting backwards continued: “Nine, eight, seven.” Sue looked out the window. She couldn’t see anything to count. There was an empty yard and a brick house with no windows. A very old vine was growing up the side of the brick house. Almost all of the leaves from the vine had blown always because of the autumn winds.

            “What is it that you are counting, Johnsy?” Sue asked tenderly.

Johnsy whispered, “Six. They are falling more quickly now. There were almost one hundred three days ago. I have been counting them even though it makes my head ache. There goes another one. There are only five left now.”

            “Whatever are you counting, Johnsy dear? Please tell Susie.”

            “I am counting the leaves on the ivy vine,” responded Johnsy. “When all of leaves are gone, I will be gone, too. Didn’t the doctor tell you that I am dying?”

            “Johnsy, that is a bunch of nonsense. What would the leaves on the ivy vine have to do with your getting well? Why, the doctor just told me this morning that your chances of getting better are… ten to one, Sue lied. “Try to drink some of this soup now and let Susie get back to work to earn some money.”

            “There goes another leaf. Now there are only four left. I don’t want any soup. I just want to see the last leaf fall before dark. Then I will go, also.”

“Oh, Johnsie,” said Sue. “Please keep your eyes closed and do not look out the window until I am done drawing. I promised to have these drawings ready by tomorrow morning and I need the light.”

“Couldn’t you draw in the other room?” Johnsy asked crossly.

“I want to be with you. And I don’t want you to keep counting those stupid leaves,” responded Sue. “Try to sleep. I need to go downstairs and ask our neighbor to be my model for the drawing I am working on.”

Comprehension questions:

1.  What did the vine leaves mean to Johnsy?

2.  Do you think Sue was afraid of Johnsy’s counting the falling leaves?

3.  Why was Sue going downstairs to see their neighbor, old Behrman?

Their neighbor, old Behrman, was past sixty and had a long, curly beard. He was an artist who wanted to paint a masterpiece but had never done so. He earned a little money by posing as a model for other artists. He drank a lot of vodka and talked and dreamed about painting a masterpiece. He liked the two young ladies in the upstairs apartment and watched over them to keep them safe.

Sue came and told Behrman about Johnsy’s idea that she would die when the last leaf from the ivy vine fell to the ground. Behrman became very angry and said that was a foolish idea. He said at first that he would not be Sue’s model, but soon changed his mind and agreed to model for her.

They went upstairs and found Johnsy asleep. They looked out the window and saw that it had begun to snow. Sue pulled down the window shade and pulled the curtains closed. After Sue finished her drawing, old Behrman returned to his apartment and Sue fell asleep.

The next morning Johnsy demanded that the curtains be opened and window shade be put up. There was still one leaf on the vine. At the end of the day, the last leaf was still there, and on the following morning, the last leaf was still there.

“You know, Susie, I think that last leaf is still there to show me that I was being very wicked. I should not want to die. Will you bring me some soup, now?” Johnsy requested.

After an hour had past, Johnsy said, “Someday soon I am going to paint the Bay of Naples!”

 The doctor came and was surprised to see how Johnsy was getting better. He told Sue that their neighbor, Behrman, was very sick and going to the hospital.

“Mr. Pneumonia’s got him in a tight grip and he’s not going to let go”, the doctor said.

The next day the doctor gave Sue good news about her friend, Johnsy.

“She is going to make it, thanks to your good care. You have beaten Mr. Pneumonia.”

That afternoon Sue and Johnsy got sad news about their neighbor, Behrman. He was ill for two days and then died in the hospital. He had been found on the first day lying on the floor with all of his clothes and his shoes wet and cold.

At first, no one could figure out how he had gotten so wet and cold. Then they found a lantern beside a ladder leaned against the brick wall outside. There were brushes and green and yellow paint nearby.

“Look out the window, Johnsy. Do you see why the last leaf hasn’t fallen? Behrman has painted his masterpiece! He painted it on the wall the night the last leaf fell,” exclaimed Sue.

Comprehension questions:

1.  Did Johnsy see a real leaf on the vine when she demanded that the curtains be opened?

2.  What did the “last leaf” teach Johnsy?

3.  Why did Behrman get pneumonia?

Questions for deeper thought:

1.  How did Sue show her love to Johnsy?

2.  How did Behrman show his love for his neighbors?

3.  How do you show your love for others?