Discuss the theme of sacrifice in O’ Henry’s story ‘The Last Leaf’.
O Henry’s (William Sydney Porter) story “The Last Leaf” is all about an old man’s sacrifice for one blooming life. Johnsy and Sue were two young artists living together at the top of a brick house beneath which on the ground floor lived Behrman, an old man of over sixty. He too was a painter. But for several years, he had painted “nothing except now and then a daub in the line of commerce or advertising”. He also served as a model for the young artists in the colony and often talked of his coming masterpiece. On the other hand, the two girls, Johnsy and Sue, used to draw illustrations for magazine story and such.
After six months of setting up their studio, in November, pneumonia broke out in the colony. Johnsy was not spared. “She lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead, looking through the small Dutch window-panes at the blank side of the next brick house.” According to the doctor, the chance of her survival was one in ten and the desire to live was the key. But Johnsy grew too weak physically and mentally too. The fever had left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. She stared at the ivy vine that climbed up the brick wall of the other house and counting backward every time a decayed leaf was falling. She feared that she would die the moment the very last leaf fell.
In the meantime, Sue went downstairs to call Behrman for posing as a hermit to help her draw. There she told him of Johnsy’s ailment and horrible fancies. Behrman got angry hearing that and cried: “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine?” This was because of his love for the two girls. Moreover he scoffed terribly at softness in anyone. Behrman also ‘regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above’. So, the moment he heard about Johnsy’s strange fancies and the doctor’s advice to make her mind positive and wanting to live, he probably made up his mind to do something. But that was not known till we heard about Behrman catching up serious pneumonia the next day. On the other hand, Johnsy was recovering from her fancy as the last ivy leaf never fell; it was still there even after the strong rain and wind in the night.
Old Behrman finally died that afternoon in the hospital, as the attack was acute. He had been out in the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that night and thus caught the cold. The janitor found him helpless with pain in the morning. His shoes and clothing were wet through the icy cold. And they found a lantern, still lighted, a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colours mixed on it. Though others could not imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night, Sue and Johnsy knew it well. Sue says — “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.”
Behrman painted the last leaf so carefully and accurately to make it look original and help Johnsy recover from her wicked thought of death. He probably knew that he would get the cold and almost surely the pneumonia too. But still, he risked his own life for saving the life of Johnsy. This is a selfless sacrifice for a noble cause. He kept his promise of protecting the two young artists and also of painting his masterpiece.