Famous Last Words

Paul Doiron here—

Last month, we wrote about our favorite first lines from novels. Well, lately I’ve been thinking about favorite last lines.

Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote 47 endings to A Farewell to Arms—some of them more philosophical and emotionally expressive than others—before he decided to conclude his novel of love and war on a hardboiled note:

After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

I think most authors can sympathize with Hemingway’s dilemma.

I just finished the fourth novel in my Mike Bowditch series, and I have come to the conclusion that while openings are hard to write, endings are  harder. You’ve spent pages and pages telling the most spell-binding story you are capable of telling, and now comes the difficult decision of knowing when to stop. How do you leave the reader feeling satisfied?

(For those of us writing series, there’s also Mickey Spillane’s famous dictum to worry about. “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle,” he said. “They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”)

A few years ago the American Book Review published a list of what it considered the 100 best last lines in fiction. At #1 was Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable:

.…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

I haven’t read that book, but it seems like a fair summary of Beckett’s existentialism, which is why I’m guessing it earned the top spot. Of novels I have actually finished, I have a soft spot in my heart for the way Fitzgerald chose to bring the curtain down on The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If you have read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, you know how right that feels—not just as a beautiful piece of writing but as the perfect conclusion to that particular tale.

I’m also partial to these exemplars of the art of wrapping things up:

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before. – Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also
Rises (1926)

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway
leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness. –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)

It’s not a novel per se, but James Joyce’s long story “The Dead” ends with one of my favorite sentences in fiction:

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.

Of my own books, my favorite last lines come from my first novel. Originally, The Poacher’s Son ran on for another chapter before an author friend recommended I hack off fifteen hundred words. She was right, and I will always be grateful for her cruel hatchet. Anyway, here they are:

People disappoint you so often. I hardly knew how to react when they surpassed all your hopes.

I’m citing myself because on January 16, Constable & Robinson will release The Poacher’s Son in the United Kingdom. Let’s hope that last page sells my next book to a new audience of British readers.

What are some of your favorite last lines?

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5 Responses to Famous Last Words

  1. Lea Wait says:

    My favorite of all times is one most people will recognize, and it always makes me cry. It’s from, of course, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. “She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

    And, from another near-to-perfect book ostensibly for children, Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, about a Maine woman from Camden who answers an ad for a wife from a widower from Kansas and makes a home for him and his children there. “When there are storms, Papa wil stretch a rope from the door to the barn so we will not be lost when we feed the sheep and the cows and Jack and Old Bess. And Sarah’s chickens, if they aren’t living in the house. There will be Sarah’s sea, blue and gray and green,hanging on the wall. And songs, old ones and new. And Seal with yellow eyes. And there will be Sarah, plain and tall.”

  2. Barry Ergang says:

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

    There’s a great line at the end of Dashiell Hammett’s short story “The Gutting of Couffignal,” but I don’t want to cite it here lest I spoil the surprise for those who haven’t read it.

  3. Deanna says:

    “The doorbell rang” Rex Stout

  4. Chuck Kruger says:

    “Forgive me, Lazarus. Men forget.”
    Eugene O’Neill – Lazarus Laughed

  5. TW says:

    First thought – “Both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand.” From Lucky by Alice Sebold. That line lingered in my mind for a long time.

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