Band 5/6 The Simple Gift + The Last Leaf

“People change and encounter different experiences as they make transitions”

Discuss this view with reference to your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing.

People may change after experiencing a new perspective of life such as improved circumstances of wealth or security. However, a holistic transition is only possible when there is an altruistic connection established with the world around us and the people within it. The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick is one such text, in which the author circumvents the traditional avenues of change such as wealth and class, but instead focuses on the transformative power of love, of bonds, and of friendships. Similarly, The Last Leaf by Henry O Keefe explores the power of connections and self-sacrifice resulting in a positive transition. Hence, through the positive and negative experiences we must face it is clear that we are able to transition into a new life through overcoming challenges and resolving barriers.

The Simple Gift, is an analogy for the gift of human connection. For Billy, he must use his experiences of family and friendship to overcome fear and isolation. Initially, Billy’s world is filled with apprehension, the use of assonance in his foul language, “each deadbeat no-hoper Shithole lonely downtrodden house,” emphasizes the resentment he feels towards the world. His transition involves making holistic bonds with Old Bill and Caitlin. The tri-colon of,” I saw past the shiny watch… the beautiful woolen overcoat. I saw Caitlin,” exemplifies Billy’s engagement with others on a genuine level, an interpersonal bond independent of class and wealth. Through this authentic transition Billy Is able to achieve a transformative change conveyed through Herrick construction of a new Billy that is antithetical to the moody teenager we first encounter, “It was like falling headlong into the clear waters of Bendarat River and opening my eyes to the beautiful phosphorescent bubbles of light…” The use of the beautiful, natural imagery creates the mood of peace and happiness juxtaposing the dark and claustrophobic world of his old home. The particular emphasis of the ‘clear water’ symbolically represents cleansing, further highlighting Billy’s transition into a new phase of life. This overall transformation is only possible because Billy chose to see Caitlin and Old Bill as equals, as human beings, and not as a spoilt rich girl, or as an old hobo. Therefore it is through these new experiences that Herrick depicts Billy’s transformation.

Another text which examines a similar aspect of transformation is The Last Leaf by Henry O Keefe. The Last Leaf introduces how a new perspective of the world can change and transition the lives of individuals. Initially both Johnsy and Behrman are faced with individual struggles. Johnsy’s depression is expressed through her sickness of “Pneumonia”. She confesses to Sue through the analogy that when the “Last Leaf” of the vine outside their apartment falls, “I must go, too.” The vine is symbolic of hope, and it’s shedding of leaves is representative of despair. The intervention comes from an older artist, Behrman. For Behrman, who is “always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never begun it,” he is paralyzed by indecision and a fear of success. The moment of holistic connection which occurs, much like the humanistic bonds that spontaneous connects Billy, Caitlin and Old Bill, is when Behrman finally paints his ‘master piece’- a photo realistic “Last Leaf” on the vine outside Johnsy’s window. This self-sacrifice transforms Johnsy and her world view. She witnesses the persistence of a single leaf that simply “would not fall”. The vine transitions into a symbol of a life that persists in living. It is because of this renewed hope, and the didactic lesson of persistence and tenacity taught by the ‘leaf’, that Johnsy survives her Pneumonia.  Conversely, whilst Behrman perishes from the act of painting through the wintery cold, he has created “his final masterpiece”. The plight of Johnsy transforms Behrman through the urgency of the situation as well as giving him a subject worthy of his passion and talent. Both individuals are utterly transitioned by the single act of human altruism. Keefe therefore portrays a powerful depiction of how these unique connections and acts of kindness impact the individual and transition them into new states of being hopeful for the future.

Likewise the wound in Old Bill’s heart is caused by the disconnection experienced through the death of his daughter and his wife. The transition which Old Bill must undergo is the ability to love again, to create bonds with others which are altruistic and meaningful. This is created through his choice of seeing the goodness in Billy, and the purity of Caitlin’s love for his friend. Like Billy, Old Bill begins in darkness. “I haven’t done anything in years” and that his only actions were to “Drink it, drink it probably, and piss it all away.” His actions show a sense of alienation and isolation, where he feels that he connect make connections with others – he is afraid to love again. This is highlighted by the metaphor of Billy’s observation, Old Bill is “afraid to forget because without his ghosts he’s afraid he’ll have nothing to live for.” Hence, like Billy, the transition only emerges when Old bill can resume his role as a father, a friend, and a mentor. In doing so, Herrick expresses that, “His laugh becomes real and it’s a good laugh, a deep belly roar,” where the onomatopoeia and assonance captures a mutual feeling of respect and happiness. As such, Old Bills very perspective shifts, and his world view changes, “I hadn’t thought of anything but how pleasant it was to sit with these people.”  The simplicity of this satisfaction is the heart of the title “A Simple Gift” – for the gift is the gift of connection, of friendship, and of empathy with another human being. It is through this connection that Old Bill is able to “Push away the cobwebs,” reinvent himself, and finally, “felt something I hadn’t felt in many years.”

Therefore, we can clearly discern that people change as they encounter new experiences. In A Simple Gift, and The Last Leaf, transitions emerge from the holistic bonds and connections, lesson of friendship and morality learned from these experiences.

Angus Law


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