Last words

Everyone knows that a great opening line can “make” a novel.  You might be so beguiled by a beautiful first sentence that you decide to follow the author on whatever path s/he chooses to lead you (even if where it leads you is misery, confusion and despair).  We’ve made a lot of fuss on this blog (as publishing people do) about opening lines…but what about final ones?  How a book ends and the image, emotion, or idea it leaves you with is, to me, in some ways more important than how it ensnares you to begin with.

I remember many years ago being rewarded for my persistence and dedication in reading Faulkner’s maddeningly brilliant The Sound and the Fury by the very last line (of what it turned out was an appendix added to the book years later; I didn’t know this at the time so for me it was the last line): “They endured.”  That phrase has stayed with me for decades now. (Yowsa! Feeling old here.)  Its simplicity is its power and it left me in awe of someone who could have crafted such a fierce and uncompromising book and ended it so exactly right (the actual first last line is pretty great too; check it out).

I have a hard time remembering what I had for breakfast (and it’s the same thing every day), but some of my all time favorites:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

“Isn’t it pretty to think so.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

“She called in her soul to come and see.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Vladimir: Well, shall we go? Estragon: Yes, let’s go.  [They do not move.]” – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

And, of course, I surveyed the DGLMers.  Some of them ignored my e-mail (as they do) and some came back with:

Stephanie, Jim, and Lauren: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

And Lauren: “He loved Big Brother.” – George Orwell, 1984

And Jim: “When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.” – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Rachel: “yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” – James Joyce, Ulysses

Jessica: “She runs.” – Nadine Gordimer, July’s People

What are your favorite last words and why?

26 Responses to Last words

  1. Gatsby is one for me, as is the end of Great Expectations (I like that it can be read several ways) and the end of The Dead, if we are counting novellas. (Or whatever you want to call it.)

    “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” – James Joyce, “The Dead”

    “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expecations

    Not sure why I like those so much, except I apparently like long, well-written last sentences. Preferably that involve the weather or, in a pinch, lakes. (I’m sure my younger college-self would have a much better answer than that.)

  2. Jac Urist says:

    “I will never have that second kiss from Marjorie under the lilacs.” Herman Wouk, Marjorie Morningstar

    Sums up first loves/aging/circle of life to perfection. Oh and that first kiss is just so memorable. You can smell the air.

  3. Steve Webb says:

    Three sentences, this one:

    Spade, looking at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”

    Huston improved on it, but not by much.

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    “Somewhere, perhaps only in his memory, he can hear a seagull crying.” — “Amnesia” by Doug Cooper

    One of the most beautiful pieces of contemporary literature ever written.

  5. Kaitlyne says:

    The last line of the Dark Tower series, for reasons I won’t go into because no one should ever have that spoiled.

  6. Anne Stuart says:

    Best line ever was from the play, Tea and Sympathy. “When you speak of this, and you will, be kind.”

  7. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

    James Joyce, The Dubliners, The Dead

  8. Nikki says:

    I like Gatsby too, and also the end of Catcher in the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” So true.

  9. Bethany Neal says:

    Actively ignoring the epilogue: “If anyone asks where we are just tell them to look up.” The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson which was/is my book obsession of the year.

  10. iDella says:

    “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: Which goes on for ever:in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

    From “Farewell To Shadowlands” the final chapter of the novel The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

  11. Abe says:

    “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

  12. THE GREAT GATSBY is definitely one. Fitzgerald could write!

    One of my favorite ending lines is from a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, THE NINE BILLION NAMES OF GOD: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

    Without getting too spoilery, I like how quietly and calmly and understatedly it relates a very monumental event.

  13. Susie C Stone says:

    “It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”

    Patrick Rothfuss in The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear.

  14. Teri Carter says:

    “This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.” – Jane Smiley, A THOUSAND ACRES

    “It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.” – Margaret Atwood, CAT’S EYE

  15. Susan Antony says:

    My favorite last line is from a play written by Heinrich Ibsen called “A Doll’s House. The last line ends with the slamming of a door.

  16. cedunkley says:

    “Well, I’m back.” From Return of the King.

    And then there is Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany which contains one of the strangest openings and closings I’ve ever read. But you need to read the whole book to get the full impact.

  17. Eric Christopherson says:

    “Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!” Dr. Seuss, from I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew.

  18. Donald Burks says:

    A book and author now out of fashion, but a genuine original:

    “I never knew my father. My mother was an ape.”

    ER Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes

  19. Charlee Vale says:

    “Yes, I can see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.”

    John Green, Paper Towns

    It beautifully expresses the tone of the book and all of the lessons the characters have learned.


  20. Gill Avila says:

    JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “All is well.”

  21. Jim Hamilton says:

    John: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” (Rev 22:20–21)

    Words of promise, hope, joy, faith, love, grace, truth.

    Without which life is impossible.



  22. Pam Sheppard says:

    Is there anything better than to read the words that strangers hold firmly and fondly in memory?

    Is there anything better than to know that books earn their inch on the shelf just for a handful of words?

  23. Kate says:

    I was worried I’d live forever.
    -Galveston, Nic Pizzolatto

  24. Gabrielle says:

    “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

    ~ A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

  25. Pingback: Words (and links) on the Week… | Sociable Ink

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