Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Last Leaf by O. Henry

This story takes place in New York City where two young women share an apartment. They, like all the tenents in their building, are artists who earn their daily break making drawings for magazine advertisements. All the artists, though, hope to paint a masterpiece, someday.

One of the girls has come down with pneumonia. She isn't in a hospital (as she would be today) but is being nursed by her room-mate. The doctor has visited the apartment and advises the healthy girl that her ill friend will only recover if she has the will to live.

The sick girl is in bed staring out the window. On this rainy November day, she is staring through the window watching leaves fall from a vine on the opposite building wall. She announces that when the last leaf falls, she will die.

The nurse is in a panic. She does her best to bring some cheer, to infuse her friend with the will to live. The sick girl refuses to improve.

The healthy girl visits an old artist who lives downstairs. She tells the old drunk that their friend needs a reason to live. He scoffs at this suggestion, and our nurse goes home dejected.

The next day, the last leaf is still on the vine. And, the next day, it's still there. Our patient begins to improve. The doctor visits and gives her a much better chance of survival. But, he lets her know that the old man downstairs is now stricken with pneumonia.

They found him in his room sick, wet, and cold. Outside was a ladder and his pallette of paints where he had painted a single leaf on the wall. It was the last leaf that had given hope to the sick girl, that had given her the will to live.

Positive aspects of this story for young readers:

-The will to live is a powerful force. Adults may have seen this in their own experience, but children may not have an understanding of this truth.

-We observe the self-sacrifice of one girl for her friend. And, in the surprise ending, the old man (an alcoholic) makes the ultimate sacrifice for the girl. Like all the artists in the building , he had planned and hoped to someday paint a masterpiece - and he did.

-We may have some dream or aspiration, we plan to be famous and remembered for the ages. In reality, our "masterpiece" may have its good effect for only a few people.

This story is available on the internet from The Gutenberg Project at in the book The Trimmed Leaf at no cost.