Its surprising twist aside, O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” emphasizes the power of art to inspire hope and longing for life. In the story’s exposition, the narrator introduces the setting, Greenwich Village, where artists have flocked to form a community. Sue, the story’s protagonist, shares a studio apartment with Johnsy. Both are young artists who share a common interest in art, food, and fashion. Their shared interests appeal to the senses, which ensures their artistic bond.

The story’s inciting incident comes when Johnsy contracts pneumonia. Because Johnsy has given up the will to live, the doctor gives her only a one-in-ten chance of survival. However, he believes that if she decides to embrace life, her chances will improve. According to him, hope is a powerful remedy. It is, therefore, ironic that he ridicules Johnsy’s desire to paint the Bay of Naples, which is an aspiration that gives her hope. These events lead to the story’s main conflict, which arises between Sue’s optimism about Johnsy’s future and Johnsy’s contrasting sense of hopelessness. For Johnsy to live, she must find a reason to fight her illness.

Sue serves as Johnsy’s caretaker while also working on the commercial art she sells to earn money. This care shows Sue’s dedication to Johnsy, despite their poverty. She puts on a brave face for Johnsy, hoping to rally her roommate’s spirits. But her optimistic front does little good as Johnsy watches the ivy vine lose its leaves. The leaves serve two symbolic purposes. First, the falling leaves represent Johnsy’s slow detachment from life and loss of hope. Second, the last leaf, clinging tenaciously to the vine, symbolizes Johnsy’s final hold on life, including her bond with Sue.

As the rising action continues to propel the plot forward, O. Henry introduces Mr. Behrman, a character who is both a parallel and a foil to Johnsy. He is an old, failed artist, prone to heavy drinking. Despite forty years of effort, Behrman has yet to find inspiration to begin his “masterpiece.” In this way, he resembles Johnsy. Both characters struggle with failing hope and look for an outside force to change their lives. Yet Behrman is also unlike Johnsy: whereas he seeks a spark of inspiration, she seeks the embrace of death.

After Behrman witnesses Johnsy’s dire condition, he leaves. A storm ensues that night, forming a bit of pathos and reflecting the inner conflicts of all three characters. Johnsy wants to be swept away from her tiresome life, just as she imagines the leaves will be swept from the vine. Yet her body resists. Sue wants nothing more than for Johnsy to live, but she feels helpless in the face of her friend’s depression. Behrman has a strong desire to protect both Johnsy and Sue, yet he must overcome his feelings that Johnsy’s depression is foolish so he can face the challenge posed by the storm.

In the morning, the women are surprised to discover that a single leaf remains on the vine. But despite her surprise, Johnsy remains uninspired. She seems even more convinced that when it falls, she will die. She has disconnected from the people and things she cares about. Just as she remains resolute in her hopelessness, so too does Sue remain hopeful. As long as the vine hasn’t yet shed all its leaves, she believes there’s a chance Johnsy will find the will to live. Though in different ways, each woman sees the leaf as a symbol for Johnsy’s last link to life.

At the story’s climax, night falls, and the last leaf remains, which allows Sue to stay hopeful about Johnsy’s recovery. Yet with the window shade drawn, the darkness of the room begins to threaten Sue’s sense of hope. She worries that another stormy night will inevitably pull the leaf loose, and that Johnsy will certainly die. Circumstances seem dire. The next morning, however, the last leaf is still there. Its tenacity finally inspires Johnsy. She takes it as a sign that she must also hold on to life.

In the story’s fast-paced falling action and resolution, Mr. Behrman dies just as Johnsy regains her will to live. It turns out that he has sacrificed himself for her sake, climbing a ladder in the cold and rain to paint the last leaf on the wall. His final masterpiece creates an artistic deception that gives Johnsy the hope she lacks and spares Sue the loss of her friend. Though he dies before they learn of his final act, Behrman’s painting communicates his love for both young women.