In "The Last Leaf" what does the last leaf symbolize?
Even in real life when we see a single leaf or a few green leaves clinging to a tree late in the year when all the other leaves have fallen, we cannot help admiring the survivor or survivors for their courage and tenacity. They seem to be like humans who are standing up to all the hardships and painful blows that life inflicts on all of us. The last leaf in O. Henry's story can probably best be described as a symbol of fortitude. Other adjectives might be "bravery," "tenacity," and "determination," but the word "fortitude" seems to suggest all of these things and more. When Johnsy sees that the last leaf has survived for another whole night after she was sure it would finally have to let go of its hold on life, she experiences the encouragement which Old Behrman sacrificed his own life to impart to her. The last leaf was his masterpiece. Though it was only a representation of a leaf, he somehow managed to put his own strong will as well as his tender affection into his creation. Johnsy only experiences the emotions she does because Behrman put those emotions into his last work.
“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. You may bring me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port in it, and—no; bring me a hand-mirror first, and then pack some pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”