In "The Last Leaf," how is Behrman the epitome of supreme sacrifice?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O. Henry's whole story is based on the idea of someone painting a fake ivy leaf on the wall of a building for the purpose of saving the life of a girl who believes she will die when the last ivy-leaf falls. The author must have felt there had to be a character who would paint that leaf. The ending wouldn't be nearly as effective if the person who painted the leaf was never introduced to the reader. The author couldn't just say that some mysterious stranger had painted the fake leaf in the middle of the night. It had to be a painter, but in introducing a character who was a painter, there was a risk of giving away the surprise ending. Some readers were likely to suspect that this character was being introduced because he or she would get the notion to paint a fake ivy leaf. This would be especially the case if the painter did it because he was a young man in love with the sick girl. O. Henry disposes of that sentimental possibility with the following exchange between the doctor and Sue:

"Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice—a man, for instance?”

“A man?” said Sue, with a jew's-harp twang in her voice. “Is a man worth—but, no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.”

Instead, the author introduces a character who is a painter but apparently highly unlikely to think of doing what he does. In the first place, Old Behrman is introduced because Sue needs someone to model for a magazine illustration. Behrman hasn't painted anything for years. He is an old man who is drunk all the time. He speaks with great contempt for the idea that anyone could die just because a leaf fell off a nearby vine.

“Vass!” he cried. “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing. No, I will not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead. Vy do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der prain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”

O. Henry achieves the feat of introducing a character without arousing the reader's suspicions that this character might have a hidden motive. Behrman speaks poor English and is usually drunk. He might be saying one thing and thinking another. Notice that he tells Sue, "No, I will not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead," and then contradicts himself a moment later.

“You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman. “Who said I will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose." 

We realize at the end of the story that Old Behrman only pretends to be grouchy and cynical. Underneath, he is a sentimental Germanic romanticist who is quite capable of doing such an heroic thing as sacrificing his life to save a sick girl. The factors that would seem to militate against his doing such a foolhardy thing could also motivate him to do it. He is an old man, but his life is over; he is a failure; he has nothing to lose. He is a heavy drinker, but alcohol sometimes causes people to have crazy ideas. He hasn't painted anything in twenty-five years, but now might be the perfect time for him to paint that masterpiece he is always talking about. O. Henry's ending comes as a great surprise, but it does not seem the least bit contrived or implausible.