The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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What is Behrman's masterpiece in "The Last Leaf" and how does it save Johnsy's life?

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Behrman's masterpiece in "The Last Leaf" is the painting of the last leaf. It is a masterpiece because it saves Johnsy's life by giving her the inner strength to fight the disease so that her body can recover. Johnsy believes that when the last leaf dies, she will die. By painting the leaf on the wall Johnsy can see from her window, Behrman makes Johnsy believe that the last leaf is still alive and she gets better.

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Behrman's masterpiece is his painting of the last leaf of the story’s title on the wall opposite Johnsy’s window. If we consider a masterpiece a work of art that has a lasting impression on other people, then this painting certainly qualifies as such. Specifically, Behrman’s masterpiece of the last leaf saves Johnsy’s life because it gives her the mental and spiritual strength to fight the disease that has taken hold of her body.

Johnsy is bedridden. The view from her window is the only picture she has of the outside world. As the cold weather grips the city and causes the leaves to wither and fall, Johnsy has determined that her similarly withering body will deteriorate in tandem with the leaves on the tree outside her window. In her mind, she equates her life and the time she has left to the time remaining for the leaves on the tree. She is certain that when the eponymous last leaf falls, or dies, she will also die.

By painting a leaf on the wall opposite Johnsy’s window, Behrman creates the illusion that the last leaf is still alive and thriving. This gives Johnsy the strength to will her body to recover. Johnsy gets better because the last leaf never falls. It is not until Johnsy is safely out of danger of succumbing to her illness that her friends realize that the last leaf is a painting and not an actual leaf. The leaves had fallen off of the tree long before Johnsy recovered.

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O. Henry gives us the answer to your question in the very last lines of the story: "Look out the window, dear, at the last leaf on the wall. . . . Oh, my dear, it is Behrman’s great masterpiece—he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

But Behrman's masterpiece isn't simply a painted leaf—it is also a message. Johnsy is sick and weary of life, and no amount of pleading, comforting, or coaxing can break through her sickness. She is intent on dying when the last leaf falls from the tree outside her window. By painting a leaf that cannot fall, Behrman is indicating to Johnsy that her determination is misguided and that she is ignoring the greatest gift she has in life: people who care about her. His masterpiece goes beyond words and beyond art: it is a symbol, an action.

Johnsy takes heart at the leaf's stubbornness out there in the wind and rain; she believes its purpose in holding on is "to show me how bad I was. It is wrong to want to die." It refuses to fall, because she should also refuse to let go of life so easily. Thus, Johnsy becomes determined to keep living.

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The short story "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry tells of a trio of struggling painters in Greenwich Village. Two women, Sue and Johnsy, share an apartment, and their neighbor Mr. Behrman lives downstairs.

An outbreak of pneumonia hits Greenwich Village, and Johnsy becomes ill. The doctor says that it is important for her survival that she has the will to live. However, she has resigned herself to death and decides that when the last leaf falls from a tree outside the window of her apartment, she will die.

Behrman is presented as a failed painter who drinks too much and makes a scant livelihood posing for other painters. He speaks of painting a great masterpiece but has never followed through with his boasting.

In despair, Sue goes to Behrman and tells him of Johnsy's resignation to death. Behrman becomes upset but, at the time, offers no solution.

This is where O. Henry's genius for surprise endings comes in. Johnsy continues to watch the last leaf on the tree, but despite rain and wind, it does not fall—it continues to hang on the branch. Johnsy regains her will to live and gets better. Only then does Sue tell Johnsy that Behrman has died of pneumonia. He went outside in the freezing night and painted the leaf so that Johnsy would see it and not give up. He gave up his life to save Johnsy. That's why the single leaf that he painted is his masterpiece. The painting of it saved a precious human life.

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Behrman is an older artist who lives in the same Greenwich Village boardinghouse as Johnsy. He has never achieved fame or financial success from his painting.

When he learns that Johnsy has pneumonia and believes she will die when the last leaf falls off the ivy vine outside her window, he sneaks out and paints an ivy leaf on the vine. It is so realistic that Johnsy thinks it is a real leaf. Because it does not fall off the vine, Johnsy has time to recover. The leaf saves her life by giving her hope.

The leaf is Behrman's artistic masterpiece. Not only is it a beautiful work of art that looks completely real, it has done good in the world. Ironically, however, Behrman dies from the pneumonia he catches going out in the rain to paint the leaf that enabled another person to live.

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Behrman has painted an incredibly realistic, lifelike portrayal of a leaf holding onto an ivy vine. In fact, his painting is so realistic that the ailing Johnsy thinks it's an actual leaf she can see outside her window. Johnsy is suffering from a nasty bout of pneumonia. Not only does this weaken her physically, it also lowers her spirits, making her give up the ghost and lose the will to live. Yet the last leaf gives her something in this life to hang on to; so long as the leaf remains, Johnsy will live, but as soon as it falls then she'll give up her struggle altogether and die. But as the last leaf isn't real, it will never die and so neither will Johnsy. Her life, then, is saved by Behrman's last great masterpiece, one for which he sacrifices his own life.

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