Two kinds of determination in an American short story
I speak now about a moving short story of 1907 by the American writer William Sydney Porter—better known by his penname, O. Henry: “The Last Leaf.” My high school students love this story, in its compassionate criticism of a young woman’s determination to retreat from the world, and its showing of her friends’ kindness in being determined that she not!
In a lecture, Eli Siegel said, “A few [of O. Henry’s] stories show he belongs to American literature.” I believe this is one of them. It tells of two young painters sharing a studio in the artists’ colony described as “quaint old Greenwich Village.” One of them, Sue, is from Maine, and easily adjusts to New York winters, but Joanna, or Johnsy, from California, doesn’t, and when, “in November a cold, unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the colony—touching one here and there with his icy fingers,” Johnsy becomes very ill.
The doctor gives her a one-in-ten chance—but only if she wants to live, and he tells Sue “she has made up her mind that she’s not going to get well.” We can ask: what had Johnsy used to come to this decision? Did she, a struggling artist, feel humiliated having to do work that was less than grand in order, as the author says, to “pave [her] way to Art”? Might she have felt in some way what I had: that she hadn’t got the breaks, and did she take New York in winter to stand for a world she wanted to see as cold to her? “When there is an external misfortune,” Mr. Siegel explains, there can be mental trouble arising “from wanting to use it too much to make oneself distinguished in sadness and to feel the world is a failure.”
O. Henry is keen in saying that Johnsy will be stronger if she shows an active interest in the world. The doctor asks, “Has she anything on her mind?” and he continues,
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.
Sue goes to Johnsy’s bedside when she hears her murmuring: “‘Twelve,’ …and a little later ‘eleven’; and [then] ‘eight’ and ‘seven,’ almost together.” “What was there to count?…There was only a…dreary yard [and an] old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, [which] climbed half way up the brick wall.” Johnsy says weakly:
“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 are only five left now.” “Five what, dear?” “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?”
Sue is distraught, and Johnsy says,
“I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark. Then I’ll go, too. 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.”
When Johnsy says, “I’m tired of thinking,” she is showing a very wrong kind of determination, which is also very common.
I don’t want to minimize for a second how terrifying it is for a person to have a life-threatening illness. Yet I have seen that even when a person is in great distress, about oneself or a loved one, it is urgent to have a determination on behalf of life. “Is this true,” asked Eli Siegel, in this vital question:
No matter how much of a case one has against the world—its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness—one has to do all one can to like it, or one will weaken oneself?
This is centrally about the fight between the two opposing kinds of determination in a person’s mind. This story, with its pathos, its careful use of words, and, as we’ll see, the irony that is O. Henry’s trademark, shows the answer is “YES!”
Sue is determined to find some way to have Johnsy give up her desire to die, and talks to their neighbor, Mr. Behrman—who, “regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists.” He was, the author says, “a failure in art….He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece,” though he hadn’t painted a single stroke on it in 25 years. When Sue tells him of Johnsy’s situation, he “shouted his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings.”
“Vass!…Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine?…Vy…do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”
“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies.” Mr. Behrman is intent on trying to help: “Go on, I come mit you….Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away. Gott! yes.”
Sue shows Behrman the fateful ivy vine. “They looked at each other for a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was falling, mingled with snow.” Sure that the rain would strip the last leaves from the vine, Sue pulls down the shade to prevent Johnsy from looking out the window—but to no avail. The next morning, Johnsy, insists Sue raise the shade.
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….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…It will fall today, and I shall die at the same time.”
I see this story, and Johnsy’s determination to make these leaves stand for herself and her own certain death, as symbolic. Aesthetic Realism explains: we punish ourselves when we want to put aside the world, represented here by this ivy vine. These leaves put together reality’s opposites: delicacy and strength, fixity and motion, bright and dark. Had Johnsy wanted to get rid of that world—and is she now punishing herself for this? From O. Henry’s description, I think this is what is happening.
Another day and another stormy night pass and, the author writes, “Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised.” But despite her terrible determination, the leaf is still there. As she sees this little ivy leaf, which has endured so much, yet persists, she takes it as some criticism of herself. “I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” she said.
“Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die.”…Later she said: “… Some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”
Johnsy’s hope to like the world is winning out; she wants to live. The doctor is encouraging, but says he must see another pneumonia patient downstairs. It is Mr. Behrman. He says, “The attack is acute. There is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more comfortable.”
Johnsy grows stronger. The story ends with large feeling, along with the kind of ironic twist O. Henry is known for. Sue sadly tells her friend of Mr. Behrman’s death:
“He was ill only two days. The janitor found him…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….Then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder…, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors 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 masterpiece. He painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”
Though this has sorrow, Mr. Behrman’s masterpiece, a tiny leaf painted on a wall, arose from the most beautiful form of determination, good will, which was the same as his greatest self-expression.
Women today can learn from Aesthetic Realism to have this proud determination—and it is my fervent hope that they do!