The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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How does Behrman's last painting become a masterpiece and save a life in "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry?   

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Behrman's last painting becomes a true masterpiece because of its realism. It was so true to life that it fooled everyone, but especially Johnsy, for she was the one he had done the painting for. If the painting had not so masterfully depicted the last leaf holding onto life on the withering ivy vine, Johnsy would not have been convinced and, in her despair, she would have given herself over to death.

In addition, the painting is remarkable because it becomes evident later that the frail old man had gone outside to face the most atrocious weather conditions to paint the leaf. The fact that he could even paint so precisely in such a storm makes his rendition so much more phenomenal.

Furthermore, in spite of his frailty and the prevalence of a deadly disease, Behrman was prepared to put himself at risk of infection and exposure by performing a remarkably sacrificial act to show how much he cared for Johnsy and human life. As it is, being out in the freezing cold and rain led to an infection which his fragile body could not fight and he was ravaged by pneumonia and later died. Of all the acts that he performed, this stands out as the greatest and accentuates the fact that his simple work of art is a masterpiece. 

Behrman did not expect any reward or praise for his work. He realized that saving Johnsy's life would be a reward in itself and he more than admirably succeeded in doing so. Johnsy had put all her hope for survival in that one last leaf she saw clinging to the vine. When she saw the vine losing its leaves, she started counting them and stated that her life was ebbing away just as the leaves were dropping.

Johnsy determined that when the last leaf had fallen, she would die. As she told Sue:

Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too.

I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark. Then I'll go, too.

When Sue reported this to Behrman, a downstairs neighbor, he was quite upset and saw Johnsy's remarks as foolish. He then decided to perform his most magnanimous deed. Johnsy's life was saved when she believed that the fragile leaf was clinging to life and, if it could survive against all odds, so could she. The inspiration she got from the leaf gave her hope and she decided to live. 

"I've been a bad girl, Sudie," said Johnsy. "Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die."

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Behrman's last painting becomes a true masterpiece because it is painted as an act of faith and because his art, in this most perfect form, is itself an act of love.

Twentieth-century author Truman Capote wrote,

Any work of art, provided it springs from a sincere motivation to further understanding between people, is an act of...

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faith and, therefore, an act of love.

Working with Capote's definition of art, Behrman's creative gesture of painting the leaf onto the window so Johnsy will not despair and die is truly an act of unselfish love.Moreover, his heroic gesture of placing himself in health-threatening conditions by climbing a ladder and subjecting himself to the brutal cold and wet winter weather demonstrates his deep love for the young woman. This demonstration of unselfish love, this work of art — a solitary, stalwart leaf of yellow and green that clings to its stem against the building — is, indeed, the masterpiece Behrman has waited to paint for twenty-five years. 

When Sue learns what Mr. Behrman has done for Johnsy and his ultimate sacrifice for her, she tells Johnsy, "Ah, darling, it's Behrman's masterpiece."

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In The Last Leaf by O. Henry, what makes Behrman's work a masterpiece? 

Behrman's painting of a leaf on a vine that was being destroyed by a heavy storm becomes a masterpiece, not only because of its accurate and realistic depiction of a leaf on a vine, but due to the context in which the leaf was painted and the outcome the painting achieved.

Behrman did not paint the leaf because he wanted to achieve fame and fortune, although it had always been his desire to complete such a painting, but because he wanted to save a life. Furthermore, he had sacrificed his own to achieve this goal. The story makes it clear that Behrman performed this selfless deed out of love for his fellow man.

In the story we quickly learn that many artists of all kinds had come to Greenwich Village to practice and ply their trade, but that the community had been ravaged by  pneumonic plague. One of the artists so infected was Behrman's upstairs neighbour, Joanna, or 'Johnsy', for short. Johnsy's live-in companion, Sue, was told by the visiting doctor that she would die if she did not have hope. She stood at least a one-in-five chance of survival if she had some purpose to cling to.

Sue discovered that Johnsy had been counting the leaves on the wall of the building opposing theirs. She told Sue that if the last leaf went, she would go too. Sue imparted this information to old Behrman who was quite aghast that Johnsy would allow a leaf to determine her fate.

When Johnsy looked out of her window the next morning, she noticed that one last leaf was still clinging to the vine and when she did the same later, she was surprised that it was still there. This inspired her and she decided to fight her illness. When the doctor came he announced that she had a fifty-fifty chance of survival and needed some care.

He also informed the two girls that Behrman had contracted acute pneumonia and that he was old and frail and would have to go to hospital. The next day he told Johnsy that she was out of danger, all she needed was a food diet and care to make a full recovery.

Susie later informed Johnsy that Behrman had passed away after only two days. She told her that they discovered that Mr Behrman had gone out into the terrible weather with a ladder, paintbrushes and paint to create Johnsy's last leaf, and so contracted the deadly illness. As Susie put it:

 "Mr. Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in the hospital. He was ill only two days. The janitor found him the morning of the first day in his room downstairs 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. 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 colours 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."

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In "The Last Leaf," why is it considered that the last leaf was Behrman's masterpiece?

The last leaf is considered Berhman’s masterpiece not because it was a technically beautiful work of art, or because it broke any social boundaries or experimented with style, but because it saved Johnsy’s life.  Johnsy, sick with pneumonia, had declared that when the last leaf had fallen off the tree outside her window, she would fall with it – it would be time for her to die.  The doctor himself told Sue that if a patient had no will to live, there was little he could do at this point in her illness; Johnsy had given up.

Mr. Berhman is an old, unsuccessful painter who lives downstairs from the two girls, who drinks too much and who is constantly rambling on about how one day he will paint a masterpiece.  When Sue tells Mr. Berhman about Johnsy’s intentions, he cries in dismay, “’Are there such fools?  Do people die because leaves drop off a tree?...Why do you allow her to think such a thing?’”  He clearly believes the entire situation to be ridiculous, and feels just as strongly as Sue that Johnsy mustn’t die, fond as he is of the girls.  But while Sue works on her own painting in hopes that Johnsy will see it and reconsider – a representation of the last leaf on canvas – Berhman as well works through the night, creating art not in imitation of reality but as a replacement for reality itself.

Johnsy has a change of heart because of the perceived tenacity of the last leaf – its dogged resistance to the wind and the seasons makes her realize how silly she had been to want to die, and allowed her to hold on long enough for her sickness to wane.  Little does she know that the leaf itself is a fiction.

Mr. Behrman’s final painting, therefore, is not only a creative solution to a dismal problem, but is the embodiment of the healing powers of art.

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