Longinus’ Literary Sublimity in O. Henry’s "The Last Leaf"

In the short story, O. Henry used various literary devices such as personification:“Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman.”1, and simile: “… said Johnsy, closing her eyes, and lying white and still as a fallen statue.“1 What’s remarkable in O. Henry’s writing style is his ability of making the ivy ‘leaf’ very symbolical and essential throughout the story. This particular leaf symbolizes Johnsy’s life throughout the story. This leaf is a recurring motif which also signifies hope, both for the said character and the readers. This symbolism shows that the piece, indeed, has sublimity, since it possesses excellence in the use of language, more specifically, through the use of certain kinds of figures of speech with appropriateness. The figurative language certainly adds grandeur to the piece, just like in the stated excerpts above. These figures of speech do not just serve as pure beautifier to the piece but these serve as contributors to the artistic meaning of the story. Longinus emphasized that figures of speech should be used with definite purpose and not just as mere ornaments. Thus, these should be used appropriately throughout the story to serve their purpose. In the short story, pneumonia is decsribed as an opposite of a ‘chivalric old gentleman’.1 Merriam-Webster defines chivalric or chivalrous, as a “consideration and courtesy, especially toward women”.The disease, can not be considered chivalric because  it had caused Johnsy’s suffering and hopelessness. On the other hand, Mr. Behrman became the means in saving Johnsy’s life and in ending her suffering, through painting the ivy leaf. Therefore, Mr. Behrman can be considered as the “chivalric old gentleman” in contrast to pneumonia, and is exactly the disease’s perfect opposite, as the story implies. Hence, the use of figures of speech did not just decorate the piece or falsely imply something, because the figurative language used has a direct bearing to the meaning of the story, which was magnificently established by its writer. In addition, this also echoes nobility in diction, since metaphors and personifications are appropriately used in the story, with the proper use of words, which in turn can give a great impact to the readers.

Literary sublimity is also defined as the “expression of a great spirit”2 or showing the act of benevolence. Mr. Behrman, serving as the story’s hero, showed a great spirit in making his greatest masterpiece, which is painting “the last leaf”. This leads in giving Johnsy the hope and courage to continue her life, as resembled by the remaining ivy leaf-

“And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, 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.”1

This is no doubt a great act of benevolence, since it reflects very lofty ideas of the writer, thus proves that this piece has a grander of thought. It is probably the writer’s innate ability to produce such thoughts since O. Henry was able to conceptualize a character like Mr. Behrman, who is quite admirable for his unexpected but noble and kind deeds. This feature makes this short story one of the most memorable pieces of all time. This paves the way for the story to have its moral or lesson that will leave a mark in every reader’s heart. Through the writer’s natural writing prowess triggered by his creativity and imagination, this piece stimulates the reader’s emotions and feelings, and thus fulfills the second source of sublimity which is the “capacity for strong emotions”.3

Lastly, literary sublimity has “the power to provoke ecstasy”2 in one’s reader. O. Henry’s amazing writing style of creating an unusual ending certainly incites happiness and extreme excitement. The story provokes ecstasy to the readers when Johnsy is able to live because the ivy leaf stays, (though just painted) due to Mr. Behrman’s act of benevolence. Most importantly, the old man has fulfilled his dream to make the greatest masterpiece of his life, and indeed a great masterpiece, for it has saved a life which was once in danger. This gives the reader a feeling of ecstasy, as the last line of the story goes-

“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 the last leaf fell.”1

In entirety, with lofty thoughts, powerful emotions, appropriate figures of speech and diction, this short story is considered a dignified composition. These sources of sublimity that are present in this short story made a piece with excellence in substance. As Longinus said, “Sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression.” Truly, Longinus’ literary sublimity is reflected in O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf”.