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The Last Leaf by O. Henry Essay

In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called “places.” These “places” make strange angles and curves. One street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper, and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account! So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth Avenue, and became a “colony.” At the top of a squatty, three-storey brick house Sue and Johnsy had their studio. “Johnsy” was familiar for Joanna. One was from Maine; the other from California. They had met at the table d’hôte of an Eighth street “Delmonico’s,” and found their tasters in art, chicory salad, and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio resulted.

That was in May. In November a cold, unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the colony, touching one here and there with his icy finger. Over on the east side this ravager strode boldly, smiting his victims by scores, but his feet trod slowly through the maze of the narrow and moss-grown “places.” Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and the lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead, looking through the small Dutch windowpanes at the blank side of the next brick house. One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway with a shaggy, grey eyebrow. “She has one chance in—let us say, ten,” he said, as he shook down the mercury in his clinical thermometer. “And that chance is for her to want to live.

This way people have of lining-up on the side of the undertaker makes the entire pharmacopœia look silly. Your little lady has made up her mind that she’s not going to get well. Has she anything on her mind?” “She—she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day,” said Sue. “Paint?—bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice—a man, for instance?” “A man?” said Sue, with a jews’-harp twang in her voice. “Is a man worth—but no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.” “Well, it is the weakness, then,” said the doctor. “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 per cent from the curative power of medicines. If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead of one in ten.”

After the doctor had gone, Sue went into the workroom and cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into Johnsy’s room with her drawing-board, whistling ragtime. Johnsy lay, scarcely making a ripple under the bedclothes, with her face toward the window. Sue stopped whistling, thinking she was asleep. She arranged her board and began a pen-and-ink drawing to illustrate a magazine story. Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to Literature. As Sue was sketching a pair of elegant horseshow riding trousers and a monocle on the figure of the hero, an Idaho cowboy, she heard a low sound, several times repeated.

She went quickly to the bedside. Johnsy’s eyes were open wide. She was looking out the window and counting—counting backward. “Twelve,” she said, and a little later, “eleven”; and then “ten,” and “nine”; and then “eight” and “seven,” almost together. Sue looked solicitously out the window. What was there to count? There was only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and the blank side of the brick house twenty feet away. An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half-way up the brick wall. The cold breath of autumn had stricken its leaves from the vine until its skeleton branches clung, almost bare, to the crumbling bricks. “What is it, dear?” asked Sue.

“Six,” said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. “They’re falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now.” “Five what, dear? Tell your Sudie.”

“Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?” “Oh, I never heard of such nonsense!” complained Sue, with magnificent scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting well? And you used to love that vine so, you naughty girl. Don’t be a goosey. Why, the doctor told me this morning that your chances for getting well real soon were—let’s see exactly what he said—he said the chances were ten to one! Why, that’s almost as good a chance as we have in New York when we ride on the street cars or walk past a new building. Try to take some broth now, and let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell the editor man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork chops for her greedy self.” “You needn’t get any more wine,” said Johnsy, keeping her eyes fixed out the window. “There goes another. No, I don’t want any broth. That leaves just four. I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark.

Then I’ll go too.” “Johnsy, dear,” said Sue, bending over her, “will you promise me to keep your eyes closed, and not look out the window until I am done working? I must hand these drawings in by to-morrow. I need the light, or I would draw the shade down.” “Couldn’t you draw in the other room?” asked Johnsy coldly. “I’d rather be here by you,” said Sue. “Besides, I don’t want you to keep looking at those silly ivy leaves.” “Tell me as soon as you have finished,” said Johnsy, closing her eyes, and lying white and still as a fallen statue, “because I want to see the last one fall. 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.” “Try to sleep,” said Sue. “I must call Behrman up to be my model for the old hermit miner. I’ll not be gone a minute. Don’t try to move till I come back.” Old Behrman was a painter who lived on the ground floor beneath them. He was past sixty and had a Michael Angelo’s Moses beard curling down from the head of a satyr along the body of an imp.

Behrman was a failure in art. Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For several years he had painted nothing except now and then a daub in the line of commerce or advertising. He earned a little by serving as a model to those young artists in the colony who could not pay the price of a professional. He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece. For the rest he was a fierce little old man, who scoffed terribly at softness in any one, and who regarded himself as especial mastiffin-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above. Sue found Behrman smelling strongly of juniper berries in his dimly lighted den below. In one corner was a blank canvas on an easel that had been waiting there for twenty-five years to receive the first line of the masterpiece. She told him of Johnsy’s fancy, and how she feared she would, indeed, light and fragile as a leaf herself, float away when her slight hold upon the world grew weaker.

Old Behrman, with his red eyes plainly streaming, shouted his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings. “Vass!” he cried. “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing. No, I vill not bose as a model for your fool hermit- dunderhead. Vy do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der prain of her? Ach, dot poor lettle Miss Yohnsy.” “She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. Very well, Mr. Behrman, if you do not care to pose for me, you needn’t. But I think you are a horrid old—old flibbertigibbet.” “You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman. “Who said I vill not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose.

Gott! dis is not any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go avay. Gott! yes.” Johnsy was sleeping when they went upstairs. Sue pulled the shade down to the window-sill, and motioned Behrman into the other room. In there they peered out the window fearfully at the ivy vine. Then they looked at each other for a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was falling, mingled with snow. Behrman, in his old blue shirt, took his seat as the hermit-miner on an upturned kettle for a rock. When Sue awoke from an hour’s sleep the next morning she found Johnsy, with dull, wide-open eyes staring at the drawn green shade. “Pull it up; I want to see,” she ordered in a whisper.

Wearily Sue obeyed.

But lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall one ivy leaf. It was the last on the vine. Still dark-green near its stem, but with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from a branch some twenty feet above the ground. “It is the last one,” said Johnsy. “I thought it would surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall to-day, and I shall die at the same time.” “Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning her worn face down to the pillow; “think of me, if you won’t think of yourself. What would I do?” But Johnsy did not answer.

The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to posses her more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed. The day wore away, and even through the twilight they could see the lone ivy leaf clinging to its stem against the wall. And then, with the coming of the night the north wind was again loosed, while the rain still beat against the windows and pattered down from the low Dutch eaves. When it was light enough Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised. The ivy leaf was still there.

Johnsy lay for a long time looking at it. And then she called to Sue, who was stirring her chicken broth over the gas stove. “I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die. You may bring me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port in it, and—no; bring me a hand-mirror first; and then pack some pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.” An hour later she said—

“Sudie, some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”

The doctor came in the afternoon, and Sue had an excuse to go into the hallway as he left. “Even chances,” said the doctor, taking Sue’s thin, shaking hand in his. “With good nursing you’ll win. And now I must see another case I have downstairs. Behrman, his name is—some kind of an artist, I believe. Pneumonia, too. He is an old, weak man, and the attack is acute. There is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more comfortable.” The next day the doctor said to Sue: “She’s out of danger. You’ve won. Nutrition and care now—that’s all.” And that afternoon Sue came to the bed where Johnsy lay, contentedly knitting a very blue and very useless woollen shoulder scarf, and put one arm around her, pillows and all. “I have something to tell you, white mouse,” she said. “Mr. Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in the hospital.

He was ill only two days. The janitor found him on the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colours mixed on it, and—look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s master-piece—he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

ELEMENTS OF FICTION

1. Character is a person who is responsible for the thoughts and actions within a story, poem, or other literature. Characters are extremely important because they are the medium through which a reader interacts with a piece of literature. Every character has his or her own personality, which a creative author uses to assist in forming the plot of a story or creating a mood. The different attitudes, mannerisms, and even appearances of characters can greatly influence the other major elements in a literary work, such as theme, setting, and tone. With this understanding of the character, a reader can become more aware of other aspects of literature, such as symbolism, giving the reader a more complete understanding of the work. The character is one of the most important tools available to the author.

KINDS OF CHARACTER

A. A protagonist is considered to be the main character or lead figure in a novel, play, story, or poem. It may also be referred to as the “hero” of a work. B. An antagonist is a character in a story or poem who deceives, frustrates, or works against the main character, or protagonist, in some way. The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could be death, the devil, an illness, or any challenge that prevents the main character from living “happily ever after.” C. An antihero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero.

He or she may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely pathetic. D. A flat character is a character who is the same sort of person at the end of a story as he or she in the beginning. E. A type character is a stereotyped character: one whose nature is familiar from prototypes in previous fiction. He or she has only one outstanding trait or feature, or at the most a few distinguishing marks. F. A dynamic character is a character who, during the course of a story, undergoes a permanent change in some aspect of his/her personality or outlook. G. A round character is a character who is complex, multi-dimensional and convincing.

2. Setting is the background against which action takes place. The elements making up a setting are:

H. the geographical location, its topography, scenery , and such physical arrangements as the location of the windows and doors in a room; I. the occupations and daily manner of living of the characters; J. the time or period in which the action takes place, for example, epoch in history or season of the year; K. the general environment of the characters, for example, religious, mental, moral, social, and emotional conditions.

3. Point of view is the vantage point from within an author presents a story. It is the position or the standpoint from which something is observed or considered.

KINDS OF POINT OF VIEW

L. First-person narrator stands out as a character and refers to himself or herself, using “I”. M. Second-person narrator addresses the reader and/or the main character as “you”. N. Third-person narrator is not a character in the story and refers to the story’s characters as “he”, “she”, and “it”.

KINDS OF THIRD-PERSON POINT OF VIEW

A. The Limited Narrator can only tell what one person is thinking or feeling. B. The Omniscient Narrator is not a character in the story and can tell what any or all characters are thinking and feeling. C. If the author never speaks in his or her own person and does not obviously intrude, the author is said to be objective. D. If the author butts in or throws his weight around or makes comments or tells his characters what to do in the story and obviously intrudes, the author is said to be subjective.

RELIABLE AND UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

The narrator is said to be a reliable narrator when everything this narrator says is true, and the narrator knows everything that is necessary to the story. On the other hand, the unreliable narrator exists when the narrator may not know all the relevant information or may be intoxicated or mentally ill or may lie to the audience.

4. Plot is the structure if a story or the sequence or the pattern in which the author arranges events in the story. The plot is built around a series of events that take place within a definite period. It is what happens to the characters. No rules exist for the order in which the events are presented. A unified plot has a beginning, middle and an end.

In literary terms, a unified plot includes an exposition, a rising action, a climax, a falling action and a denouement or resolution or conclusion.

O. Exposition is the introductory material that creates the tone, gives the setting, introduces the characters and supplies other facts necessary to understanding a work of literature. P. Rising Action is the second section of the typical plot, in which the main character begins to struggle with the story’s main conflict; the rising action contains several events which usually are arranged in an order of increasing importance. Q. Climax is the rhetorical term for a rising order of importance in the ideas expressed. In short story, the climax is the point of highest interest, whereat the reader makes the greatest emotional response.

In dramatic structure climax designates the turning point in the action, the crisis at which the rising action reverses and becomes the falling action. R. Falling Action is the part of the plot after the climax, containing events caused by the climax and contributing to the resolution. S. Denouement or Resolution is the final unraveling of a plot; the solution of a mystery; an explanation or outcome. Denouement implies an ingenious untying of the knot of an intrigue, involving not only a satisfactory outcome of the main situation but an explanation of all the secrets and misunderstandings connected with the plot complication.

5. Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his readers and his subject; his mood or moral view. A writer can be formal, informal, playful, ironic, and especially, optimistic or pessimistic.

6. Style is the manner of expression of a particular writer, produced by the choice of words, grammatical structures, use of literary devices, and all the possible parts of the language use. Style is the way a writer uses words to create literature. It is difficult to enjoy a story’s characters or plot without enjoying the author’s style. The style of an author is important as what he is trying to say.

7. Irony is a literary term referring to how a person, situation, statement, or circumstance is not as it would actually seem. Many times it is the exact opposite of what it appears to be.

THREE KINDS OF IRONY

T. Verbal irony is when an author says one thing and means something else U. Dramatic irony is when an audience perceives something that a character in the literature does not know. V. Irony of situation is a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results.

8. Symbol is a word or an object that stands for another word or object. The object or word can be seen with the eye or not visible.

9. Foreshadowing is the presentation of material in a work in such a way that later events are prepared for. The purpose of foreshadowing is to prepare the reader or viewer for action to come.

10. A flashback is a literary device in which an earlier pr past event is inserted into the present or the normal chronological order of a narrative. Various methods may be used to present this literary device. Among them are recollections of characters, narration by the characters, dream sequences and reveries.

11. Conflict is the struggle that grows out of the interplay of two opposing forces. Conflict provides interest, suspense, and tension. At least one of the opposing forces is customarily a person. This person, usually the protagonist, may be involve in the conflict of four different kinds:

W. a struggle against nature
X. a struggle against another person, usually the antagonist
Y. a struggle against society
Z. a struggle for mastery by two elements within the person

Seldom do we find a simple, single conflict, but rather a complex one partaking of two or even all of the preceding elements. Conflict implies not only the struggle of a protagonist against someone or something, but also the existence of some motivation for the conflict or some goal to be achieved thereby. Conflict is the raw material out of which plot is constructed.

12. Movement is a quality in a literary work or work of art of representing or suggesting motion. It is the progression of events in the development of a literary plot.

13. Pace is the speed of flow of the story. It is the rate of speed at which an action or movement proceeds.

14. Dialogue is the conversation between characters in a drama pr narrative. It is the lines or passages in the story which are intended to be spoken.

15. Theme is the central idea or statement that unifies and controls the entire work. Id develops from the interplay of character and plot. The theme can take the form of a brief and meaningful insight or a comprehensive vision of life. A theme may contain morals to warn the reader to lead a better life or a different kind of life. A theme is the author’s way of communicating and sharing ideas, perceptions, and feelings with readers, and it may be directly stated in the book, or it may only be implied.


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