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HANOI UNIVERSITY

ENGLISH DEPARTMENT

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ENGLISH LITERATURE

O. Henry’s compassion for his typical characters


in the story “The last leaf”

Students : Vu Thi Hong

Dao Thi Thanh Huyen

Class : 7A16

Hanoi, May 31st, 2019


O. Henry, an American writer, composed over 400 short stories and made a contribution
to American literature. Among them, “The last leaf” written in 1907 is considered as his
marvelous short story by using the sacrificial theme, the fear of pneumonia and the twist on the
fatalistic tone that helped to derive a message: Life must have hope. His characters were written
with an obvious void of passion about anything so that the author took his great compassion for
their fate. He felt compassion for their poverty, for Johnsy who lost the hope to fight for
pneumonia and for Behrman, the man had a failure in art but his masterpiece saved a life of a
poor mind girl later.

In reality, O. Henry was born in low circumstances, met a lot of difficulties, experienced
many jobs to gain his living and met many kinds of people. This brought diversity to his work, at
the same time, gave him a chance of showing his compassion for his characters. Therefore, he
understood and sympathized artists' lives in the story “The last leaf”, and put his soul on papers
to write about his characters as if he wrote for himself.

In the opening of the short story “The last leaf”, a little district west of Washington
Square was described with small strips and maze streets. They were so complex that a collector
with a bill for paints, paper, and the canvas was supposed to meet himself coming back without a
cent having been paid on account if he traversed this route. The simple and lively imaginative
words made readers impressed with the poverty of the artists who lived in this colony. They had
to pay their little money to rent the dark rooms and paint pictures to earn their poor lives. They
could not hire professionals as models to paint pictures, just someone whom they could pay for
at a low price. They worked hard but remained penniless. They lived for today but they could not
insure for tomorrow. Through the realistic painting, the author wanted to not only reflect reality
but also show his attitude to human beings. He wormed his pen into routes to dig out the readers'
compassion. His source of love wavered when his characters met a twist of fate and he cared for
their lives.

In order to show compassion to each character, O. Henry kept going on exploiting


difficulties in their lives by his delicate writing style. Johnsy and Behrman were typical for the
little people in the society at that time. He observed subtly these characters’ emotions,
sentiments, thoughts and situations when they had adversities and helped them untangle their
trouble by the twisting technique. Those people in this story went through crises as many other
artists, but O. Henry did not stop at sharing their sufferings; instead, he sympathized with them
and poured his comfort into their hearts by creating a surprise for each one.

Firstly, Johnsy familiar for Joanna was a very pitiful character in this story whom the
author spent his strong compassion for. She was a poor artist in an extremely old and poor
colony. She had contracted ‘blood thinned by California zephyrs” long ago, but at that moment
she continuously got a serious disease which was pneumonia. Johnsy was fragile in both physical
health and soul that “She lay, scarcely moving on her painted iron bedstead” and looking outside
to find a fulcrum for herself. She not only got a hard disease but also lost her effort to fight
against “Mr. Pneumonia”. She assigned her life to leaves on the ivy vine outside the window she
usually looked at. She was so hopeless that she was bored to wait for the last leaf falling down.
Each leaf Johnsy saw falling from the vine in many ways led her into further despair. Although
her situation was extremely intricate, there existed some people around her who tried to find
ways to help her recover from her illness. This ethical action was created by the writer to light up
warm hearts around Johnsy. The first person is Sue, her roommate. The motive that they met
each other was accidentally “at the table D’hôte of an English street ‘Delmonico’s’ and they
“found their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio
resulted”. Sue spent her most money buying Johnsy her favorite port vine and invited a doctor to
prescribe a treatment for her sick child. She cried formidably when the doctor told her that
“Johnsy has only one chance - in let us say, ten for her to want to live”, and that the treatment
would be useful if she had much hope for her own life. Though Sue could be inflected by
pneumonia, she chose to stay close her pitiful friend to make sure she was ok. She kept Johnsy
avoiding looking at the silly ivy leaves that Johnsy believed that she would die when all the
leaves fell down. Going through any kinds of disease was too tired, but it was fortunate for
Johnsy when she was taken care of by Sue and was treated by her sincere love and devotion. The
second person helped Johnsy recover from illness was the old artist living on the ground floor
beneath her house, Behrman. He was merely her housemate but he voluntarily regarded himself
as an especial person to protect these two young artists. Because of this mission, right after
hearing about Johnsy’s disease and her thoughts of life, he immediately burned into tears with
his red eyes and felt stunned for such idiotic imaginings. He also unconsciously showed his
anguish about little Johnsy via lots of sayings such as “Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy” or “dis
is not any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Someday I vill braint a
masterpiece, and ve shall all go away”. These sayings sound weird and non-English, but it
seemed because Behrman was so touched and heartbroken that his voice nearly lost and his
pronunciation was incorrect. He displayed a strong love of a strange person to Johnsy and the
peak of his love was when he voluntarily and silently made a masterpiece of a fake last leaf on
the ivy vine in one night. That leaf changed Johnsy’s mind of assigning her life for a little leaf.
After lying for a long time looking at that leaf, she realized how bad she was and she desired to
live by asking for a little broth and some milk with a little pork and to enjoy the life by making
up herself at the mirror, watching Sue cooking, then hoping again to paint the Bay of Naples.
The meaning of that leaf was pushed up highly when Behrman got pneumonia after painting that
leaf and passed away right after. This leaf of hope painted by an old unsuccessful artist became
the symbolism for this story and for the humanity between human beings as well. At first, Johnsy
lived with despair and waited in desperation until her death. However, the author penetrated her
sentiment and expressed his compassion, love, and consolation to his weak and fragile character
by recovering her hope and helping her recognize that she could be definitely alive if she still
hoped optimistically and beat struggles in life. Besides, Johnsy’s heart was warmed by the honest
love of the different-bloodline people, Sue and Behrman. In other words, O. Henry wanted to
add people like Sue and Behrman beside her to reduce her misfortune and simultaneously
expressed his commiseration to the poor mind girl.

Secondly, Behrman appeared later in the story but his appearance took off the knot for
the developments of the story. Behrman lived alone at past sixty in the same house with Johnsy
and Sue. He was a failure in art and he had wielded the brush for forty years without finishing a
masterpiece. “He had been just about to paint it, had not begun yet”. In one corner of his room
was “a blank canvas on an easel that had been waiting there for twenty-five years to receive the
first line of the masterpiece”. The situation of this unsuccessful poor artist was observed and
described sympathetically by the author. It may be because O. Henry was an artist and he had a
chance of interacting with different artists. Therefore, his writing style transmitted profoundly
the plight of many artists at that time. However, it was paradoxical that Behrman was an artist
but “he earned his little by serving as a model to those young artists in the colony who could not
pay the price of a professional” like Sue or earned his living by painting “a daub in the line of
commerce or advertising”. That was so commiserative for such people like him when they ought
to have earned much money or become well-known in their field. Therefore, he might drink a lot
the strong type of juniper berries and he was grouchy and easily hot-tempered because he was
extremely upset about his career. Nevertheless, he immediately worried for Johnsy when
knowing about her miserable situation. When he saw his pitiful pale Johnsy in her bed, he looked
at Sue for a moment without speaking. It can be referred that he was thinking about something he
was able to do for her. At last, he made a reckless decision when painting a fake last leaf on the
ivy vine regardless of the dreadful night. He did not paint on the paper he had prepared long ago,
so it seemed he did not tend to make a masterpiece, but a magical light of hope for the sick
young girl. Although his last painting was not exhibited in the place with lots of audiences, it
unintentionally became a masterpiece due to its meaning of rescuing a patient during illness with
no optimism of life and his silent sacrifice for a strange person.

The characters in this story first appeared to be void of passion for anything. Johnsy was
lack of hope and belief in life, but she struggled successfully with the disease later. Behrman, the
man who had a lack of interest with his art, made his final masterpiece for the rest of his life. It
can be seen that whoever under O. Henry's talented pen all get something from his sympathy.
Through the story, the author reflected that in the society at that time, money dominated all
aspects of life and people treated neglectfully to each other, but poor people gave each other a
treasure of amazing love and sacrifice. Obviously, the humanism content O. Henry drove
touchingly into his readers and the compassion and penetration he took on his characters made a
great contribution to the success of the moving story “the last leaf”.

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