The Last Leaf

by O. Henry

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What is the main idea of "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry?

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The main idea in the short story "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry is the power of hope and belief. In Johnsy's belief that the painted leaf is real and hasn't fallen, she is able to recover, no longer believing she will die when the last leaf falls.

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One could say that the main idea in “The Last Leaf” is that it's important to have something to live for.

Struck down by a nasty bout of pneumonia, Johnsy has pretty much given up on life. She's certain that she hasn't got much longer to live and believes that she will die as soon as the last leaf outside her window falls.

Profoundly disturbed by her friend's physical and emotional condition, Sue strives to give Johnsy something to live for, something that will encourage her to fight on instead of passively awaiting her death. To that end, she gets a neighbor painter called Behrman to paint a leaf on the wall outside.

When Johnsy sees the last leaf, it gives her hope. No longer in the grip of a debilitating death wish, she's already making plans for the future and expresses her heartfelt desire to paint the Bay of Naples.

One could also say that another idea is at work here: the transformative power of art. For it is Behrman's artwork, his very special painting, that has given Johnsy back her strength and sense of purpose in life. Without his art, without the last leaf that he painted, this would not have been possible.

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O. Henry's "The Last Leaf" is, at its core, a celebration of selflessness and self-sacrifice.

The key characters in the story are Johnsy, Sue, and Behrman. Johnsy and Sue are a pair of young artists rooming together in Greenwich Village. Behrman, on the other hand, is in many respects a failed artist. Over sixty years old, he is still waiting to paint his masterpiece, even as he never seems able to get started on the attempt. This story is set amid a pneumonia epidemic, with Johnsy falling deeply ill, convinced that she is about to die.

The idea of an artistic masterpiece is critical to the story's themes, as O. Henry seems to challenge society's collective preconceptions about how art should be understood and judged. In most cases, when we imagine masterpieces, we imagine those works that are widely admired and celebrated, bringing fame to their creators.

As the story makes clear, however, Behrman's masterpiece amounts to his painting of a leaf on a vine. He dies largely unknown, having never achieved fame and reputation, and yet his work has achieved something far more vital. He painted this image driven by the knowledge that it might determine whether or not Johnsy herself would maintain the will to live, and thus that painting inspires Johnsy to cling to life. She is still alive because of his act of self-sacrifice, and this is a far more meaningful achievement than grasping after fame.

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The main idea in the story is that our beliefs and hopes are what sustain us. This is shown when Johnsy comes down with the pneumonia that is sweeping through Greenwich Village. The doctor treating her says her chances are only one in ten to live, because Johnsy believes she will die. The doctor tells Sue:

If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead of one in ten.

Asking a question about the future would show that Johnsy has hope of living. Johnsy is convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls off the vine outside her window. Instead, when the last leaf stays on a miraculously long time—long enough for Johnsy to recover—we see the power of belief at work.

In fact, the artist Behrman upstairs had painted the last leaf on the vine. It was his masterpiece, so realistic that it fooled Johnsy into believing it was real.

The leaf also shows that Behrman believed in himself and his power to paint a realistic leaf—and he believed as well that doing so would save Johnsy. The irony of the story is that he stayed out in the rain at night to paint it, so he caught pneumonia and died. Nevertheless, he would not have made the sacrifice had he not believed there was hope it would work.

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The power of hope is the main idea of O. Henry's "The Last Leaf." 

Hope is what threads through this moving story of the love that one young lady from New York has for another from California, along with the love from one grumpy little old man. The power of the hope that these characters hold onto throughout O. Henry's narrative acts as an antidote to Johnsy's deadly illness.

Sue tells Johnsy that her idea of dying when the last leaf falls is "nonsense" and makes an effort to change her friend's mind by giving her hope. She tells her to hold onto the words of the doctor, who has said that her chances are ten to one. Sue then draws down the curtain so that Johnsy will not watch the leaves.

Sue also solicits the assistance of Old Behrman, who cares deeply for Johnsy. He ensures that Johnsy will retain her hope of getting well by painting the ivy leaf on the wall of a building opposite her window because she has said she will die when the last leaf falls. When Johnsy sees the painted leaf, she is encouraged to get well with a renewed hope.

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To me, the main idea of this story is that a person's attitude is what matters the most in life.

In the story, Johnsy is dying largely because she thinks she is dying.  When her roommate tries to reason with her and treat her like an adult, Johnsy continues to fade toward death.

But when the old man paints the leaf on the wall, she becomes convinced that she is not going to die after all.  Objectively speaking, nothing has changed.  But she has convinced herself that she can live where before she had convinced herself that she would die.

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