The 10 best… closing lines of booksThe most memorable literary payoffs, from the chilling to the poetic
Sunday 29 July 2012
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Fitzgerald hypnotises successive generations of readers with this tale. Nick Carraway's signing off after the death of Gatsby is my favourite last line in the Anglo-American tradition – resonant, memorable and profound. It hovers between poetry and the vernacular and is the magnificent chord, in a minor key, which brings this 20th-century masterpiece to a close. Somehow, it sums up the novel completely, in tone as much as meaning, while giving the reader a way out into the drabber, duller world of everyday reality.
Ulysses by James Joyce
"I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another… then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."
Joyce is the master of the closing line and this is his most famous and most suggestive. Compare it with the end of The Dead, his short story that concludes Dubliners: "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."
Middlemarch by George Eliot
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
Middlemarch is many readers' favourite Eliot novel, with so many quotable passages. This passage is almost a credo – a lovely, valedictory celebration of Dorothea's quiet life, after she has renounced Casaubon's fortune and confessed her love for Ladislaw.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
"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."
Conrad's merciless short novel (fewer than 40,000 words) opens on the Thames and ends there, too. The last line of Marlowe's astounding confession is an admission of his complicity in the terrible events he has just described as a reluctant witness. It also executes a highly effective narrative diminuendo in an extraordinary fictional nightmare. Compare George Orwell's chilling return to the status quo in another nightmare, Nineteen Eighty Four: "He loved Big Brother."
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
"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."
This is a heartbreaker. Twain rounds off his masterpiece by saying that Huck Finn is fated, like all Americans, to an incessant quest for the challenge of the frontier. For sheer teenage disaffection, it's matched by the last line ofCatcher in the Rye: "Don't tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." And also from the US, let's not forget Margaret Mitchell's ending to Gone With the Wind: "After all, tomorrow is another day." Pure hokum, like the novel.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
"Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."
And she has. Lily's closing words complete the circle of consciousness.Virginia Woolf was good at last lines and was always a decisive closer. Mrs Dalloway, whose first line famously has Woolf's protagonist buying the flowers herself, ends with: "It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was." That's the perfect conclusion, to a nervy climax, nailed in nine words.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
"The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off."
The spirit of Bugs Bunny inspires the finale of Yossarian's adventures with 256th Squadron. It's the moment in which Yossarian, who has been in thrall to Catch-22 throughout, finally breaks away. Yossarian has come to realise that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. But here, finally, he can become free.
Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
"There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbour, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady's bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship's funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture – Find What the Sailor Has
A brilliant, and moving, mixture of perception and reality. Contrast the incoherent end of William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, "No got … C'lom Fliday."
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
Brontë's masterpiece is often cited for its gothic morbidity and intoxicating romantic darkness, but here – stepping back from the tragedy of Heathcliff and Catherine – the novel displays an acute evocation of Yorkshire combined with memorable poetic grandeur. This note of redemption promises a better future in the union of Cathy and Hareton.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter
"But Tom Kitten has always been afraid of a rat; he never durst face anything bigger than – A Mouse."
Children's books should not be overlooked. Potter earns her slot with this chilling, but playful, ending to a spine-tingler by a writer who loved to explore the world of juvenile suspense. Perhaps in honour of the late Maurice Sendak we should also mention "And it was still warm", the payoff to Where the Wild Things Are. And JK Rowling has a well-earned closer toHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: "The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years. All was well."