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An Analysis of language used in The Last Leaf

Zhao Yanyan

Of all the surprising ending O. Henry produced, the end of The Last Leaf is the one that impresses me most. Although the last leaf is not even real, it is still the greatest masterpiece created by Mr. Behrman. With the tiny leaf, the writer sings high praise for hope, love, friendship and the spirit of self-sacrifice. Since this story is a perfect combination of plot, language, and theme, this novel analysis will demonstrate the accuracy of this message through an analysis of its plot, characters, and language.

Ι. Plot

The Last Leaf is brief and simple story mainly happening between three poor artists. A young artist named Johnsy is infected with pneumonia. On the brink of death, her weak will to live made her survival chances less. She strongly believes that when the last leaf falls off of the vine outside her window, she will be very near to death. Anxious about this situation, Johnsy’s best friend sue informs Behrman, who lives in the same apartment as Johnsy who claims that he will paint a masterpiece, although he has never even attempted to start, that Johnsy thinks that she will die when the last leaf. The gruff and elderly artist jeers at this as foolishness, but—as he is protective of the two young artists—he decides to see the vine from her window.

A pouring rainstorm comes in the night. It seems that there will be none leaves left in the tree. Johnsy is tired of waiting the leaf to drop and protests against having the curtains closed. Sue insists on doing so since she doesn’t want Johnsy to see the last leaf fall. Next morning, when opening the curtain, Johnsy is surprised to find there is still a leaf. “She insists it will fall that day. But it doesn't, nor does it fall through the night nor the next day. Johnsy believes that the leaf stayed there to show how wicked she was, and that she sinned in wanting to die.” Johnsy regained hope and faith. With her attitudes changed, she recovers from the severe illness day by day.

Sue was told by the doctor that Mr. Behrman came down with pneumonia, and is beyond help. “He is being taken to the hospital to be made comfortable in his final hours.” He dies that day. Sue finds out the truth of Mr. Behrman’s illness. She tells Johnsy that on that stormy night, when the last leaf was about to fall, it is Mr. Behrman that took a ladder, climbed the wall, and painted a true masterpiece--a picture of the last leaf on the brick wall.

Ⅱ. Characters

There are three characters in the novel--- Mr. Behrman, Johnsy, and Sue. All three has distinct personality and character, making the story tragic but touching.

Johnsy is awfully pessimistic. Some conversations and her behaviors are the most forceful arguments. Due to her disease, she becomes very frail and loses hope of recovering. In fact, the last hope depends on her will to live. There is an old ivy vine on which only several leaves remain outside her window. She is too disheartened to tries her best to fight with pneumonia. “Your little lady has made up her mind that she's not going to get well. Has she anything on her mind?” What the doctor has said signifies her mental and psychological condition and leaves the readers a first impression of pessimistic. She’s even convinced that “When the last one falls I must go, too.” Even when she witnesses the last leaf survived in the rainstorm, she said that

“I thought it would surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall today, and I shall die at the same time.” These words again show her desperate and chaotic state of mind. She has supposed the things which have no logic and is ready to die.

Sue is a devoted and sincere friend of Johnsy. O. They love and care about each other. When Johnsy falls ill, Sue is a great support for her. “Dear, Dear!” said she, learning her won face down to the pillow “think of me, if you won’t think of yourself. What would I do?” These lines make readers feel her pain. Although her efforts don’t improve Johnsy’s condition, after all she tries her best to take care of her. This precious friendship is like sunshine which warms the entire story.

Mr. Behrman is the actual protagonist of this novel. He is a typical O. Henry hero. The author does not put in too many details about him, but his image is most appealing and memorable. He is an unsuccessful painter with ugly looks and he lives a poor life. In his own words, “Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress's robe. ” Being a failure in art, this elderly artist is still dreaming of creating a masterpiece. Apart from this, Mr. Behrman was alcoholic and bad-tempered--- he often drinks excessively. When reading this, a negative impression is left in readers ’ mind and readers nearly confirm that such a character doesn ’t matter and wouldn’t make much difference to the whole story. However, one of the greatness of the work lies in the inconsistency between what people say and what people do. “By displaying the contrast, readers can understand that Behrman is really a great and unselfish man.” Mr. Behrman regarded himself as guard dog to the young artists, Johnsy and sue, who live in the studio above. With his read eyes plainly streaming, he shouted his contempt and derision for Johnsy’s idiotic imaginings. As a matter of fact, he is kind- hearted and he really cared about Sue. It is he who gives courage and hope to the young artist. It is he who saves the life of Johnsy at the cost of himself. In doing so, he creates the masterpiece he has been struggling to paint.

Ⅲ. Language

Rhetoric devices are widely used in this novel. “A cold, unseen stranger ”, “smiting his victims by scores ”, “the red-fisted, short breathed old duffer. ” The pneumonia “stalked about” the colony, “touching ” here and there, “strode boldly ”. Metaphor and personifications are used by the writer so that the readers are able to clearly feel the huge impact pneumonia has on this small town. “This also paves way for the final development of the plot---Johnsy got infected and was pessimistic.”

Humor Tone is another characteristic of The Last Leaf. The interesting dialogues embody this. When describing Johnsy’s condition, the doctor doesn’t say directly how important confidence is to survival. Instead, he uses another way. “Living-u on the side of the undertaker ”. This description is much more vivid and we can feel that losing faith means dying sooner or later. Besides, “count the carriages in her funeral procession ” is also humorous. Because the doctor doesn’t say “ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves”.

Last but not least, O. Henry is very good at using the art of ending. In this novel, He successfully creates an unexpected ending which is totally different from the readers ’ imagination but is pretty reasonable. It is also worth mentioning that because

of the use of the side of foil, the ending doesn’t seem so sudden.


In this novel, we not only get to know distinct characters, the unexpected development of the plots and the author’s advanced writing technique, but also fully appreciate the power of hope and the beauty of human nature. All above make it popular and influential until today.


[1]. O. Henry, The Last Leaf.

[2]. Xue Yuan, A Study of Writing Style on O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf”.

[3]. Yao Xueying, How to Produce a Surprise Ending for Readers.

[4]. George Monteiro, Hemingway, O. Henry, and the Surprise Ending. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press 1973. Print

[5]. 任成刚、王玉敏. 杰作里的真正杰作.

[6]. 刘洋、刘舒琳. 生命的杰作.

[7]. 陈燕. 浅析《最后一片叶子的文体特征》.

[8]. 乐黛云. 当代西方文艺思潮.

[9]. 王铁柱. 他隐姓埋名却扬名四海.

[10]. 秦德娟、何婧媛. 图画不朽 生命长青。

[11]. 潘正凯. 含泪的微笑,人性的光辉.