This lesson introduces you to the story “The Last Leaf” by the celebrated American short-story writer, O. Henry. This story was included in his collection The Trimmed Lamp (1907) which explores the lives of ordinary people in the city of New York. His stories generally expresses the occurrence and effect of coincidences on characters through humour, the grim or irony, and often bears a surprise twist at the endings, a device that came to be identified with his name.
This lesson proposes to offer you a glimpse of his life and works and a detailed analysis of the prescribed story to make you aware of the ideas, nuance and meanings underlying it. You will also find an elaborate discussion on the technique, style and language O. Henry employed in his stories.
O. HENRY: HIS LIFE AND WORKS
O. Henry was the pseudonym of American short story writer William Sydney Porter. His life was much like the literature he wrote: a short story punctuated by unforeseen twists. O. Henry is one of those few authors who is known entirely for his short stories and in 1918, the O. Henry Memorial Award was established to be given annually to the best magazine stories, through which the winners and leading contenders would be published in an annual volume.
- Pseudonym: pen name. Punctuated: interrupted from time to time.
- Dime: an American coin worth ten cents, so it is used to mean cheap. Ranch: large farm for breeding cattle, sheep, horse etc.
William Sydney Porter was born amid American Civil War on September 11, 1862, in Greenshoro, North Carolina. His middle name at birth was Sidney; he changed it to Sydney in 1898. His parents were Dr Algernon Sidney Porter, a physician and Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter. When William was three, his mother died from tuberculosis. He was mostly raised in his grandmother’s boarding house by his aunt Evelina Maria Porter, a school teacher who encouraged Porter’s love of books. As a child, Porter always spent his time reading, everything from classics to dime novels; his favourite works were Lane’s translation of One Thousand and One Night, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. At the age of fifteen, he left school and became an apprentice in his uncle’s drug store and four years later at the age of nineteen he was a licensed pharmacist.
In March 1882, Porter went to Texas with their family friend, Dr James K. Hall, hoping that a change of air would help alleviate a persistent cough he had developed. He spent two years on the sheep ranch of Richard Hall, in La Salle County and helped out at a ranch land. While on the ranch, he learnt bits of Spanish and German from the mix of immigrant ranch hands. He also spent time reading classic literature. His health did improve and he travelled with Richard to Austin in 1884. Here, William took a number of jobs over the next several years, first as a pharmacist, then as a draftsman, bank clerk and journalist.
He led an active social life in Austin, which included membership in singing and drama group. Porter was a good singer and musician who played both the guitar and the mandolin. He became a member of the “Hill City Quartet”, a group of young men who sang at gatherings and serenaded young women of the town. William met and began courting Athol Estes, then seventeen years old from a wealthy family. On July 1, 1887, William eloped with Athol to the home of Rev. R.K. Smoot, where they were married. It was at this time when Porter’s friend Richard Hall became Texas
- Serenade: sing or play music for woman one loves outside her window.
- Indict: (pronounced in dait): accuse; to charge formally with a crime.
- Post: lay down, as a stake or payment; deposit (bail money).
Land Commissioner and offered Porter the job of a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office (GLO) at a salary of $ 100 a month which was enough to support his family, but he continued his contributions to magazine and newspapers. It was in the GLO building itself, that he began developing characters and plots for such stories as “Georgia’s Ruling” and “Buried Treasure”. His job at GLO was a political appointment by Richard Hall. Richard ran for Governor in the election of 1890 but lost. Porter resigned in early 1891 when the new Governor was sworn. The same year, Porter began working at the First National Bank at Austin as a teller and bookkeeper. The bank was operated informally and Porter was careless in keeping his books. In 1894 cash was found to have been missing from the bank and Porter was accused by the bank of embezzlement and he lost his job but was not indicted.
He then started working full time in his humorous weekly The Rolling Stone which he had started in 1894 while working at the bank. The weekly featured satire on life, people and politics and included Porter’s short stories and sketches. Although it had reached the top circulation 1500, it failed eventually in April 1895, perhaps because of Porter’s poking fun at powerful people. Porter also might have ceased publication as the paper never provided adequate income. By then, his writing had caught the attention of the editor of the Houston Post.
Porter and his family moved to Houston in 1895, where he started writing for the Post. Porter gathered ideas for his column by loitering in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there. This was a technique he used throughout his writing career.
Unfortunately for him, while he was in Houston, the First National Bank of Austin was audited by Federal auditory and they found the embezzlement shortage which led to his dismissal. A federal indictment followed and he was arrested on charges of embezzlement.
Porter’s father-in-law posted bail to keep Porter out of jail, but the day before, Porter was due to stand trial on July 7, 1896, he fled, first to New Orleans and later to Honduras. While holed up in Trujillo hotel for several months, he wrote Cabbages and Kings, in which he coined the term “banana republic” to describe the country, subsequently used to describe any small, unstable tropical nation of Latin America. Porter had sent Athol and Margaret back to Austin to live with her parents. Unfortunately, she became too ill to meet Porter in Honduras as Porter had planned. When he learnt that his wife was dying, Porter returned to Austin in February 1897 and surrendered to the court. Yet again, Porter’s father-in-law had posted bail so that Porter could stay with Athol and Margaret.
Athol Estes Porter died on July 25, 1897, from tuberculosis, then known as consumption. Porter, having little to say in defence, was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years jail and imprisoned on March 25, 1898, at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. While in prison, Porter as a licensed pharmacist, worked in the prison hospital. He had fourteen stories published under various pseudonyms which first appeared in the story, “Whistling Dick’s Christian Stocking” in the December issue of McClure’s Magazine in 1899. A friend of his in New Orleans would forward his stories to publishers, so they had no idea that the writer was imprisoned. Porter was released on July 24, 1901, for good behaviour after serving three years. Porter reunited with his daughter Margaret, when she was eleven, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where Athol’s parents had moved after Porter’s conviction. Margaret was never told that her father had been in prison. She was told that he had been away on business.
In 1987 Porter married Sarah Lindsay Coleman, his childhood friend born in Greensboro. The marriage was not happy, and they separated a year later. His last years were shadowed by alcoholism, ill-health and financial problems. He died on June 5, 1910, due to Cirrhosis of liver. After funeral services in New York City, he was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina.
Porter’s incarceration in Ohio State Penitentiary proved a blessing in disguise for it helped him to become a professional writer. His prison stays allowed time to both write and publish together. His first story written in prison, “Whistling Dick’s Christian Stocking” was also his first work under his pseudonym O. Henry, although he continued to use other pseudonyms such as Olivier Henry and S.H. Porters. The origin of his famous pen-name is uncertain, various biographers have suggested that it was taken from the listing of the French Chemist Etienne-Ossian Henry in United States Dispensatory. Whatever be its origin, Fred Abrams observed in his Studies in Short Fiction, that “Porter’s desire to adopt a pseudonym was undoubtedly motivated by his desire to conceal the stigma of being a convict. His own vague explanations of the pseudonym in later years was a patent evasion of the truth.” Making most of his time in prison, porter contributed to various magazines stories based on his experience in the American South and West and in Central America and he worked through a period of literary apprenticeship in which his style was transformed from journalism to genuine literature.
- Incarceration: imprisonment.
- Hobo:(U.S.) tram; vagrant. transmit: change into another form.
- Frenetic: mad; wild; frantic.
After a brief period of working for Pittsburgh Dispatch in April of 1902, he arrived in New York City, responding to the metropolis with love and awe, spending hours talking with various types of people of the city-the struggling shopgirls, the unsuccessful artists, the hobos, and the impoverished – and transmitting them into fiction that he sold at a rapid rate to magazines and newspapers. In December 1903, Porter agreed to furnish a story each week to New York World, an arrangement continued until 1906. While in New York he wrote 381 stories.
Despite the frenetic pace, in 1904, Porter found time to publish his first book and only novel, Cabbages and Kings. Actually, the novel was composed of a previously published short story, “Money Maze”, which comprised the plot and was broken into separate sections. To these sections, Porter added other earlier stories –mostly set in Honduras, which he called ‘Anchuria’ – simply changing the names of the characters. Porter fittingly described Cabbages and Kings as “a few of his South American stories strung on a thread.” Although the novel was generally well-received by critics and was praised as a realistic description of Honduras, it did not sell well.
Porter followed Cabbages and Kings with a much more successful, straight forward collection of short stories set in New York City and titled it The Four Million. The title of this 1906 collection had a satirical reference to the famous statement of New York Society leader of that time McAllister, that there were only four hundred people in New York worth knowing – the highest class of society. In naming his collection The Four Million, Porter implied that every individual among the four million who populated the city had a story worth telling; regardless of social position. This collection included two of his best stories, “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Furnished Room”.
Porter’s democratic approach caught the attention of the public, and critical acclaim followed as well, an unsigned review in January 1907. Atlantic Monthly encapsulated the fine points of The Four Million: Porter “knows his world well, but he sees it with eyes for its beauty as well as its absurdity. There is imagination as well of our colloquial tongue he posses in the background, to be used when needed, a real style”.
Encapsulated: express something briefly; summarize.
Range: (US) large open area for hunting or grazing.
In 1907 Porter published one more volume of New York stories, The Trimmed Lamp, and another collection of western stories, Heart of the West. The former included “The Last Leaf”. The latter presented accurate and fascinating tales of the Texas range. Of these tales, “The Last of the Troubadours”, J. Frank Dobie named as “the best range story in American fiction.”
Then in rapid succession came The Voice of the City (1908), containing more tales of New York and The Gentle Grafter, recounting stories he heard in the penitentiary. Continuing the hectic pace he published The Road to Destiny (1909), Options (1909), Strictly Business (1910) and The Whirligigs (1910). The last one included “The Ransom of Red Chief”, O. Henry’s funniest story about two kidnappers who made off with the young son of a prominent man. They found that the child was a real nuisance – the famous movie Home Alone (and its series) owes a debt to this story. At the end, the kidnappers agree to pay the boys’ father to take him back.
During his lifetime, O. Henry published ten collections and over 600 short stories. After his death three more volumes of collections had appeared, Sixes and Sevens (1910), Rolling Stone (1912), and Waifs and Strays (1917). Later seven fugitive stories and poems, O. Henryana (1920), Letters to Lithopolis (1922) and Henry Encore (1939) were published.
EXPLANATION OF THE SHORT STORY
The short story “The Last Leaf” portrays two young women named Sue and Johnsy. They meet by chance in a café. They become friends and discover that they have common taste in chicory salad, bishop sleeves and in painting. So they set up a joint studio at the top of a squatty, three-story brick house in old Greenwich Village.
Then comes winter and Johnsy falls ill with pneumonia. She lies on her bed looking through the small Dutch window-panes at the blank side of the next brick house. The doctor finds that his patient has made up her mind that she is not going to get well, and tells Sue privately that Johnsy has one-in-ten chance of survival and “that chance is for her want to live.” She loses all interest in life. She does not eat and drink; she loses her passion for painting, she only looks vacantly at the open window and counting backwards the remaining leaves of the ivy vine that is visible through her window, for she associates her last hours with the fall of the leaves. She has an uncanny feeling that her life will end with the fall of the last leaf of the ivy creeper. She wants to see the last one fall before it gets dark.
Long illness and weariness of life had bred in her this morbid feeling. Sue tells this strange fancy of Johnsy to the old painter Behrman who lives downstairs. As a painter, he is a failure. But he has the ambition to paint a masterpiece. Behrman loves the two young painters and protects them as a guardian. He dismisses this fancy as idiotic. He then comes upstairs with Sue to pose as a model for her painting of the hermit miner.
Next morning, Sue and Johnsy are surprised to see that the last leaf is intact on the stem against the brick wall despite the beating of rain and the fierce gusts of wind throughout the night. The last leaf survives the rain and storm. And also, Johnsy’s wish to live survives. Throughout, the next day and the night, the leaf clings to its stem against the wall. Johnsy now considers herself a bad girl having thought of death. The last leaf does not seem to fall and so she feels she will not die. She desires food and drink and assures herself that one day she will paint her masterpiece – the Bay of Naples. Also, she is declared out of danger by the doctor after two days.
But therein is the characteristic twist and the mystery is clear. On the dreadful night, old Behrman had painted the last yellow-green leaf which appeared attached on the stem against the wall. That is why it neither moved nor fluttered when the wind blew. The painted leaf had given the illusion of a living leaf and Johnsy has got back her urge to survive her illness. Johnsy was out of danger but it is Behrman who dies of pneumonia. With the survival of Johnsy, the permanency of art is established. The painting of the leaf was indeed the masterpiece of Behrman. Thus, it was not the leaf but rather his life which Behrman painted on the brick wall.
LET US KNOW
Personification: It is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or an abstract concept is spoken of as though it were endowed with life or with human attributes or feelings. O. Henry has used it to describe the onslaught of pneumonia in the Greenwich village and the ravages it has caused.
“The Last Leaf”, like many of O. Henry’s stories, is set in New York City in his own time, at the turn of the last century. From his description, we find only a drab rendering of the city that he apparently loved so much. Sentences such as, “There was only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and the blank side of the brick house twenty feet away” and “A persistent, cold rain was falling, mingled with show” give the reader an unwelcoming picture of the surroundings in which his two main characters were living. It was also a sign of the times. O. Henry’s writing was drawn from personal experiences, places and people he had met. In his description of the Greenwich Village, he could very well have been talking about the atmosphere he had once been a part of. While we now think of New York City as a bustling centre of financial world and the hub of American fashion and art, it was only beginning to come into full bloom at that time O. Henry lived in. People were often very rich or very poor and his fascination with the latter (i.e., the poor) was apparent in nearly all his stories. A popular saying of the day was that there were only “four hundred people” in New York worth knowing. Since there were four million New Yorkers at that time, this was an obvious class distinction O. Henry himself used it as a title for one of his short story collections naming his book Four Million.
“The Last Leaf” explores the lives of struggling artists and the masterpiece that proves a source of life. Sue, Johnsy and old Behrman were all artists, however, we know that they were struggling artists. The characters are not detailed in terms of their personalities, nor did they offer much to the story in terms of actions or dialogue. In typical O. Henry fashion, the story seems to be almost unimportant at first, a simple means to an end. But by the end, there is much irony which adds to the surprise ending that Henry was so famous for. However, O. Henry purposely left out details about many of his characters. In simple analysis it can well be surmised that O. Henry’s interest was only in the turning of the plot, not the depth of the characters; but again if we consider that O. Henry did not give Sue, Johnsy or Behrman many details in the description because it actually was part of their personalities, then we can view them in an entirely different light. Sue and Johnsy were both interested in “art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves”, and we just do not know much beyond that until Johnsy gets sick. The reader then finds out that Johnsy had decided that she would not get well and had reconciled herself with the fact that she was going to die when the last leaf would fall off the ivy vine outside. Johnsy’s character was obviously void of passion or want to live that at the first illness itself she wanted to give in to the thoughts of dying. Johnsy’s hopelessness and willingness to accept the worst without a fight was a major statement about the emotional state of the character. Behrman, the old man who would become the saviour, seemed to have the same lack of interest with his art. He is described as … “a failure in art….He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it.” If he were motivated or inspired to be an artist, he would have found something to paint in all of his years instead of waiting for one inspiration that would create his masterpiece. It was only because of Johnsy’s illness and his compassion for her that he was finally inspired to paint anything, and it claimed his life when he did. After what we have been told of Johnsy, the point might have been completely lost on her, and she might have not even appreciated Behrman’s attempt to save her since she had already decided to live any way. In Behrman’s attempt to save someone else, he managed to save himself. Although he died, he did become what he had always claimed to be, an artist. His final masterpiece, which saved Johnsy’s uninspired life, was nothing more than a simple leaf painted on a drab brick wall. “The Last Leaf” is not a trite story as some critics have remarked, about three artists living in New York at the turn of the last century. It is rather a story about living. Johnsy was young when she came down with pneumonia, but her spirit was already dead. Her willingness to die leads the reader to wonder why she would be so hopeless at such a young age. O. Henry did not answer this question but gave us a glimpse of how her life might turn out if she continued to live so uninspired by life by creating his character of Behrman. Her artsy neighbour was an old man who had spent his life failing at one thing because he really never tried. Johnsy did not try to live just as Behrman never tried to paint. The tragic irony occurred when Johnsy decided to live because she realised “It is a sin to want to die.” Behrman had already painted the leaf and perhaps his destiny was set. As their lives were similar, so was their sudden realisation. Johnsy understood it was time to live and Behrman understood it was time to do something important with his life even at the cost of death. O. Henry’s beautifully written story is not lacking in depth or detail, it only appears that way to those who lack the passion to delve into the story any further.
STYLE AND LANGUAGE
Most of O. Henry’s stories were set in his own time, the early years of the 20th century. Critical analysis of his stories often focused on his strong sense of place and how he both portrayed the realistic details and evoked the atmosphere of his chosen settings. Many of the sights of New York City and the local hangouts that O. Henry frequented had reappeared in a fictional guise in his stories, adding to their realism: ‘Sherkey’s Saloon’ on ‘Fourteenth Street’ was central to the action of “Past One at Rooney” and “The Guilty Party”, ‘Gramercy Park’ was the site of “The Trimmed Lamp” and ‘Delmonico’s’ on the Eight Street was the café where Sue and Johnsy met in “The Last Leaf”. His scenes of Central America and of the American South and West were crafted with the same careful detail. Critics have extolled the accuracy of O. Henry’s Western tales, claiming that his description of the ranch houses and their furnishings were exact down to the water jars and that he captured and reproduced the customs relating to hospitality, smoking, holidays, entertainment and law enforcement. In his detailed description of the locales of his tales, O. Henry reflected the contemporary emphasis on realism.
Much as the settings of O. Henry, life was transformed in his fiction, so too were the people he had known recreated as his most famous characters. In fact, the characters regarded by the readers as most unlikely were often based on real people. The ex-cowboy bank examiner and his informal procedures in “Friends in San Rosario” had innumerable real-life counterparts, perhaps, of course, in O. Henry’s own life. Both the ‘Cisco Kid’, an O. Henry creation who became an American folk legend, and another character, King James, had their prototypes in such genuine desperadoes as John Wesley Hardin and King Fisher. Criticism has also focused on O. Henry’s immense vocabulary and his acute sensitivity to word usage. According to one critic “not even (American realistic novelist), Henry James could choose words more fastidiously or use them more accurately.” O. Henry’s careful use of words was especially evident in his descriptive passages which were “cunningly fitted into the structure of his narrative so that they are made to appear not simply gratuitous lingual ornaments but integral parts of the tale.”
If O. Henry’s word play revealed his joy in using language, his use of surprise ending reflected his delight in the technique of storytelling. The surprise ending became a hallmark of the O. Henry style, and the question for the reader was not if there would be a surprise ending, but just what the surprise would be and how the author would contrive to bring it about. O. Henry was skilled at using incongruity – “the juxtaposition of unexpected, inharmonious elements built into the structure of the story” – to create a conclusion that was the antithesis of the reader expectation or of the conventional expectations of society. In stories like “The Gift of the Magi”, the reader would believe that the expected reversal had already occurred and that the climax had been reached, only to be shocked by a double reversal. O. Henry’s finest climaxes involved genuine paradoxes, and capturing the genuine paradoxical and irrational nature of life. O. Henry was actually more realistic than many writers of his generation.
- Extol: praise highly.
- Desperadoes: desperate fellow.
- Fastidious: selecting carefully; choosing only the good and appropriate. Gratuitous: done or given for nothing; unnecessarily, without good reason. Contrive plan; bring about.
- Incongruity: state of being not in harmony, with the surrounding features. Juxtaposition: placing side by side or very close together (especially for contrast)
- Antithesis: when two opposites are used in the same sentence.
After going through this unit you have learnt that William Sydney Porter who wrote short-stories under the pen name of O. Henry was a great American short story writer who romanticised the commonplace – in particular the life of ordinary people of New York City. His contribution to the American short story made him a famous story-teller, rendering his name synonymous with surprise endings. You have also got an idea about his wonderful technique and style of writing short stories. Along with this, you have been acquainted with what a short story is and what makes “The Last Leaf” an interesting and a memorable short story.
QUESTION ANSWERS TO CHECK YOUR PROGRESS
Q 1: Why and when did O. Henry move to Texas? What did he do there at first?
Ans. In 1882…with Dr James K. Hall… two years spent as a ranch hand.
Q 2: What was the name of the humorous weekly that O. Henry started? Why did it fail?
Ans. The Rolling Stone…due to Porter’s poking fun at powerful people
Q 3: Name the first story of William Sydney Porter that was published under his pseudonym ‘O. Henry’.
Ans. “Whistling Dick’s Christian Stocking”.
Q 4: What is the origin of the pseudonym O. Henry?
Ans. To conceal the stigma of being a convict.
Q 5: Name collection in which the story “The Last Leaf ” was included?
Ans. The Trimmed Lamp.
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