The Last Leaf by O. Henry – BA English – Comprehension

The Last Leaf

About the author : O. Henry is the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862 –1910). He was an American short story writer, whose writings continue to grip the attention of millions across the globe. Translated into umpteen number of languages, Henry’s stories are read in schools, colleges, libraries and homes. Quite strangely, this celebrated writer which America is proud of spent years in jail due to criminal offences. He didn’t waste his time in prison, and gainfully utilized it to write some of his best stories. “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Duplicity of Hargraves”, and “The Ransom of Red Chief’ area few of his most famous works.

The story ….

The Last Leaf

A humble studio-cum-flat where two budding painters, Sue and Johnsy, live…

To the west of Washington Square, there is a quarter that has a maze of narrow winding streets which can easily confuse a stranger. The streets crisscross so frequently that a bill collector on his errand would curse himself to find that he has returned to the same point in his quest of the elusive debtor.
This place, known as Greenwich Village, has some modest houses that are available for affordable rents. Budding painters flock to this area as they find the houses with their Dutch attics and eighteenth century gables the ideal setting for their pastime. In the past, many such artists have come here with their wherewithal to set up their studio. The place has become their ‘colony’.
Two artists, Sue and Joana (nickname ‘Johnsy’) work from a single studio. Sue hails from Maine and her friend from California. The two art connoisseurs ran into one another in d’hotel in Eighth Street. They bonded well quickly as both had similar tastes in art and food. Both decided to share a single studio.

Johnsy falls prey to pneumonia..

In November, pneumonia spread like an epidemic in the artist colony. One after another, the inhabitants came under the spell of this disease.
The virulent pneumonia quickly made the frail-bodied Johnsy bed-ridden. With a pallid face, she lay helplessly on her iron bed looking vacantly at the outside sky through the Dutch window. Johnsy’s condition deteriorated fast.

A doctor is called, but he gives no hope….

Seeing that her friend was slipping dangerously, Sue called in the over-stretched doctor to see her friend Johnsy lying hopelessly sick.
The doctor made a grim observation as he measured Johsy’s temperature with the thermometer. He declared that the lady was too unwell, and had only a 10% chance of surviving. He also declared that Johnsy was forlorn, and had lost all her will to recover.

However, he makes a crucial diagnosis ..

She could pull it through only if she had a strong enough desire to fight off the affliction. Saying this, the doctor asked if the patient had any un-fulfilled desire.

Johnsy’s un-fulfilled desire…

Sue answered that Johnsy had wanted to paint the Bay of Naples one day. The doctor was somewhat un-convinced at this. He asked if Johnsy had any young man in mind. Sue quickly replied in the negative. The doctor concluded that the patient had become too weak to survive. Nevertheless, he assured that he would give the best medicine possible. But the medication lost its efficacy by half, if the patient lost her will power to win her battle against the disease. The doctor urged Sue to talk Johnsy out of her desperation, so that the chances of recovery doubled from a low 10% to 20%.
After the doctor left, Sue cried miserably shedding many tears. Then pulling herself up, she brushed aside the gloom and walked into Johnsy’s bedside holding her drawing board. There was cheer in Sue’s appearance. She was determined to lift her friend’s gloomy mood.
Johnsy lay in her bed motionless, like deadwood. Sue stopped whistling assuming that Johnsy was asleep.

Sue stands by Johnsy like a rock…

Sue arranged for Johnsy’s diet and began to draw a pen sketch for a story. Just as budding authors write tirelessly to get a foothold in the world of literature, young artists draw sketches for stories.
The sketch Sue was drawing pertained to a cowboy from Idaho with his typical trousers and monocle. Just then, she heard a low, muffled sound that appeared to be a count-down exercise. Quite perplexed, Sue rushed to her friend’s bedside.
Johnsy lay there motionless staring at something outside and counting backwards. In her faint voice, she counted 12, 11, 10 and so on.

Johnsy’s eyes are fixed on a vine creeper somewhere outside…

Looking outside through the window, Sue wanted to figure out what Johnsy was doing. One could just see a dull yard and the back of a brick house. A withering old vine creeper clinging to the brick wall was visible. The autumn cold wind had stripped the vine of its leaves laying bare its skeleton branch.
Sue inquisitively asked Johnsy what had engaged her attention.

The falling leaves and Johnsy’s defeatist thoughts …

Johnsy said there were 100 leaves three days ago. Their number was dwindling fast as they fell faster then. It was getting easier to count. Only five were left.
Sue still could not get any clue.
Then came the unsettling explanation from Johnsy. She said she was counting the leaves. The fall of the last leaf would bring her the death and her deliverance from the suffering.
Sue was crestfallen to hear such words of doom and gloom.

Sue steps in to dispel her friend’s frustrations ..

She dismissed Johnsy’s idea of impending death as utter nonsense. She pleaded with Johnsy to get over such despondency and be positive. To lift her sagging morale, Sue disclosed that the doctor had still given some hope of survival and everything was not over yet. ‘Although slender, it was after all, some hope,’ Sue argued. Pleading frenetically with her sick friend to get over her defeatist attitude, Sue begged Johnsy to regain her mental strength. In a nonchalant manner.
Sue asked Johnsy to let her finish her incomplete art work. Sue was keen to get her fees from the client. Johnsy was unmoved. She continued her count down despite being admonished by her friend. She seemed to be seeing death almost knocking at her door. She said she was waiting for the last leaf to fall so that she could depart.
Sue again beseeched Johnsy not to continue the delirium and lie with eyes shut. This could enable her to finish the incomplete drawing so that she could  give it to the client in time the next day.
Johnsy was obdurate. She suggested Sue to move to the other room so that she could continue her count-down.
Sue said she would be at her friend’s bedside. She insisted that Johnsy must stop the counting.
Johnsy agreed not to disturb Sue while the latter completed her work. But, she was keen to see the last leaf fall that would signal her permanent respite from all the pain and suffering.
Sue urged Johnsy to sleep. She intended to go and quickly get Behrman who would be the model for the old hermit miner.
Behrman enters the picture..
Behrman was a painter living in the ground floor. He was past sixty and had a typical beard. As a painter he had struggled for nearly forty years, but any spectacular success had eluded him. He had a desire to paint a masterpiece, but never had been able to start the job in right earnest. Behraman had managed to eke out a living doing sundry painting jobs, mostly for commercial purposes. At times, he doubled up as model for other artists in the colony. He splurged on gin and boasted about his forthcoming project to paint a masterpiece that had not come to fruition yet. He was burly, and posed as the self-appointed protector of the two women artists living in the first floor.
Sue found Behrman in his dimly lit studio in the ground floor. A black canvass mounted on an easel had stood there for twenty five years to receive Behrman’s touch for his much avowed masterpiece. Sue narrated how Johnsy had been lying in her sick bed with her obsession with the last leaf in the vine that stood between her and her death.
Behrman dismisses Johnsy’s fatal thoughts..
Behrman rubbished the linkage between falling leaf of a vine and a sick human being’s impending death.
Behrman contemptuously dismissed Johnsy’s fears as absolutely silly. He even castigated Sue for having put up with such utterly unfounded notion that linked dead leaves with a person’s life span. In disgust, Behrman refused to come to pose as Sue’s model.

Behrman makes up his mind …

By then Sue was getting fed up with Behrman’s insensitivity. She reiterated how frail Johnsy had become and ticked off Behrman as a miserable dodger of responsibility.
Behrman’s feelings were hurt. He said he would surely come to pose for Sue, but asserted that Johnsy’s sickness had made him too sad to pose. Then he repeated his bravado that one day he would paint his masterpiece.
Johnsy had fallen asleep by the time Sue accompanied by Behrman came upstairs.
The next morning Sue got up from her one-hour sleep to find Johnsy staring at the green colored shade that had been drawn down.

Johnsy sees the leaf still hanging..

Johnsy wanted the shade to be pulled up to let her see the outside. Sue agreed reluctantly to this request.
But what a surprise! Despite the strong winds and lashing rain that battered the place the whole night, a lone leaf had managed to defy the onslaught to cling to the vine creeper’s skeleton.
Johnsy was surprised by the way the lone leaf had withstood the lashing of the rain and the wind. She had hoped that it would have fallen so that she could die. She imagined that the leaf would fall that day.
Sue found Johnsy’s prophesy very depressing. She became emotional and again pleaded with her sick friend to come out of her sinking mood.
Sue’s remonstrations failed to move Johnsy. She persisted with her morbid thoughts as if preparing to bid adieu to this mortal world.

A night of rain and strong wind approaches ..

The day dragged on monotonously. The night fell bringing with it another spell of heavy rain and strong wind. The lone leaf appeared to defy the fury of the weather. It remained attached to its stem.
When the light was good enough, Johnsy again repeated her order to have the shade raised.
What a surprise! The  lone leaf was still there.The ivy leaf was still there.
Johnsy kept her gaze fixed on the defiant leaf. Then she called Sue out of the kitchen.
There appeared to be a complete turn around in Johnsy’s mood. She seemed to have realized her folly in giving up on her life when the single leaf stubbornly stayed put in its place. She was gripped with a feeling of repentance. Her mood had swung from utter frustration to hope. She asked for a little broth and the mirror to see her face. She wanted to sit up so that she could see Sue working in the kitchen.
An hour passed. Johnsy recalled her desire to paint the Bay of Naples.

Johnsy fights off death…

The doctor came in the afternoon. Sue knowingly slipped out into the hallway.
The doctor told Sue that the patient had a much better chance of surviving than before. He told her that the patient might pull it through with good nursing and care. Then he said he must go downstairs to see another patient. That was Behrman.

Alas! Behrman is no more….

He was seriously ill with Pneumonia. The doctor said how hopeless Behrman’s condition was. He was being shifted to the hospital to wait out his last hours.
The next day the doctor announced that Johnsy’s condition had improved significantly. She needed care and comfort to get back to her feet.
A supreme sacrifice by Behrman …
Sue came to Johnsy’s bedside in the afternoon to find her busy with some knitting work apparently to fight off her boredom.
Sue had some sad news to announce. After just two days of suffering from pneumonia, Behrman had succumbed to the disease. The day before, the janitor had found him in great pain lying helplessly in his room in the ground floor. His shoes and clothes were completely drenched and cold. No one could know where Behrman had been in that wet night. And then they found a lantern, still aglow, 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. Saying this, Sue asked her friend to look out of the window, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. She asked Johnsy to think why the last leaf remained static unmoved by the wind. It was Behrman’s masterpiece – the one he painted the night that the last leaf fell.”

During reading discussion:

  1. Which city is the story based in? How does the author describe it?  
    Ans : The story is based in New York City. The author describes the area of city, where the story is set,  as a labyrinth of narrow alleys crisscrossing each other.
  2. If you were in the city, would you have liked to live there? Why/ why not?  
    Ans : New York, also lovingly called ‘The Big Apple’ is one of the most livable and vibrant cities of the world. It welcomes strangers of all hues with open arms. Great artists and writers have made it their home.
  3. What are the characters you come across in the passage above? What is their relationship to each other?  
    Ans : Sue, Joanna (Johnsy), and a doctor. The two ladies are just friends.
  4. Where are Sue and Johnsy from? What interests they have to live together? 
    Ans : The two were young, aspiring painters who, being beginners, had very modest incomes. Living together allowed them to share the rent.
  5. What is Johnsy’s ambition? 
    Ans : Johnsy wants to paint the ‘Bay of Naples’ one day.
  6. Who/ what was Mr. Pneumonia? Why was Mr. Pneumonia described as not being chivalrous? 
    Ans : Mr. Pneumonia is the infectious disease that had ravaged the community. It attacked the frail and vulnerable people first, showing no mercy. Its propensity to attack the feeble victims made the author to describe it as something with no  chivalry.

Comprehension questions :   

  1. Describe the condition of New York at the beginning of the 20th century.
    Ans : Like today, New York was a very welcoming place for artists of all hues. It was not so swell-planned and some parts had poor road networks. Epidemics like pneumonia were quite common. Medical infrastructure was rather primitive.
  1. Elaborate the various aspects of life ……….. by the author.  
    Ans : Budding painters like the duo described by the author had to struggle to earn a decent income. Even they bought the items like paint, brush, canvass etc. on credit. Pneumonia was rampant. With poor infrastructure, fatalities due to epidemics were high. None-the-less, artists managed to scrape a living by doing freelance assignments from clients. 
  1.  Contrast the practical …….. is important.
    Ans : The doctor was a professional, so he looked at the bed-ridden Johnsy as a trained physician. However, he knew the mental state of a patient could profoundly influence their chances oof recovery. Sue, on the other hand, more keen on getting conventional medical care for her ailing friend. She was, therefore skeptical about the doctor’s suggestions about Johnsy’s unfulfilled desires.
  1.  How does Sue ………………..attempt? Why/ why not?
    Ans : Sue does everything at her command to convince Johnsy not to lose hope and be optimistic. She pours her affection and care, and argues with Johnsy to shun fatalistic instincts. After a lot of effort, she succeeds, although to a limited extent.
  1. Describe Behrman as a person and the way he saves Johnsy’s life.
    Ans: Behrman was a large-hearted man with a rough exterior. He drank often, and used to boast about his ambition to paint a masterpiece one day. Realizing that the vine creeper’s leaves were so very important for Johnsy, he decided to paint one in that cold rainy night. He reasoned that seeing the last leaf still in tact in the creeper, Johnsy could bounce back to recovery, Behrman took the risk off painting one. It cost him his life, but Johnsy’s was saved.
  2. Friends share not merely similarity of taste…… other’s shortcomings. Do you agree?
    Ans : Yes, this is an apt statement. No two humans are born absolutely the same. Between two friends’ nature, there could be great convergence but also a gulf of divergence. Their friendship endures, if both realize this, and willingly accommodate the other. Friendship might even blossom this way. If either friend becomes rigid, the bond ruptures and might even lead to animosity. Sue and Johnsy had similar liking for painting, but differed in their approach to life. Sue was a pragmatist, where as Johnsy was a dreamer. This led to mutual affection and empathy.
  3. Why does the writer continually emphasize …..?
    Ans : The writer wants to create a turbulent weather, so that the last leaf of the vine creeper could fall on to the ground. Such an inclement weather could render Behrman’s work of painting outdoors at night an uphill task.
  4. What example of ‘personification’ the author cites …. Why …… personification?
    Ans : Mr. Pneumonia is one such example. Here, the author personifies the latter because the disease has ravaged the community and is likely to cause more fatalities. It has defied all attempts to control it.
  5. Highlight the ‘O. Henry’ twist in the story.
    Ans : O. Henry’s stories catch the readers unaware by giving an abrupt and totally unexpected twist the story. In this story, Behrman enters the fray totally unexpected, and accomplishes a really remarkable feat by venturing out in the cold night and painting the leaf. This enabled Johnsy to stave off the pneumonia and recover.  The reader was surely not prepared to discover this.

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