Ultimately, Behrman’s “great masterpiece” is not a typical painting, but a single leaf he has painted onto the wall—a leaf so realistic that both Johnsy and Sue believe it is truly the last leaf on the vine. This masterpiece saves Johnsy’s life by returning her will to live. Because he went outside in a storm to paint the leaf, however, Behrman catches pneumonia and dies. This sacrifice is not the only selfless act in the story: although the three protagonists have few possessions to call their own, they survive hardship by loving and caring for one another.
Although the characters in “The Last Leaf” lead difficult artistic lives, they find meaningful connections to others in Greenwich Village. Sue and Johnsy have left their families in Maine and California, but they meet in a restaurant on Eighth Street and form a new household together. The cantankerous old artist Behrman—who has lived alone for forty years—nevertheless feels a powerful love and responsibility for his neighbors: “[H]e regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above.”
When Johnsy first becomes ill, she turns away from human companionship, which seems to equate social isolation with illness and death. Convinced that she is dying, Johnsy wants to be alone: “Couldn’t you work in the other room?” she asks Sue “coldly.” In response to Sue’s desperate call to stay alive for her, Johnsy doesn’t respond, lost in her own solitude and depression. “The lonesomest thing in the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey,” observes the narrator. “One by one the ties that held her to friendship and to earth were loosed.” Without her friendships, Johnsy would have succumbed to her own melancholy and died: it’s Sue’s attention and Behrman’s act of kindness in painting the leaf that restore her to health.
The story may finally suggest that Behrman’s “masterpiece” isn’t a painting at all—rather, his culminating achievement is the sacrifice of his own life to save Johnsy. Ultimately, he finds inspiration not by painting alone in his “dark room,” but by using his artistic gifts for the benefit of another person. Indeed, “The Last Leaf” suggests that artistic success, health, and even life depend on the social bonds of friendship that, in the narrator’s words, “tie” people “to earth.” Ultimately, Behrman’s masterpiece is his gift for friendship.
Friendship and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Friendship and Sacrifice Quotes in The Last Leaf
[“]Your little lady has made up her mind that she's not going to get well. Has she anything on her mind?”
“She—she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day,” said Sue.
“Paint?–bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice—a man for instance?”
“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 business to come in der brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”
“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. Very well, Mr. Behrman, if you do not care to pose for me you needn’t. But I think you are a horrid old—old flibbertigibbet.”
“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 been trying to say dot I am ready to bose.”
“Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning her worn face down to the pillow, “think of me, if you won't think of yourself. What would I do?”
But Johnsy did not answer. The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed.
The janitor found him on the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, and—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.