For the Olympic gymnast, success comes down to how well she sticks the landing. A flubbed dismount sullies even the most awe-inspiring routine.
Stock-still at their desks, novelists face a similar demand for a perfectly choreographed last move. We follow them across hundreds of thousands of words, but the final line can make or break a book. It determines if parting is such sweet sorrow or a thudding disappointment.
A character in one of Jess Walter’s novels says, “A book can only end one of two ways: truthfully or artfully.” Alas, most don’t end truthfully or artfully, but there are rare exceptions: novels that conclude with such gracefully calibrated language that we close the back cover and feel physically imprinted, as though the words were pressed into us by a weight we can hardly fathom.
The rest is silence.
Some of those great final lines remain markers of our favorite novels, holy relics of our most cherished reading experiences. Others enter into the language, take on a life of their own, and eclipse their source.
Here are 23 final lines that I have never forgotten.
“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.”
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,”
by Mark Twain (1884)
“Huck Finn” is the most contentious Great American Novel. The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned it soon after it was published. Censors’ objections have shifted over the years (from truancy to the n-word), but it’s been banned in parts of the country ever since. Even the novel’s greatest fans have complained about those tedious final chapters, in which Tom and Huck plot to free Jim from the Phelpses’ farm. (Hemingway condemned this section as “cheating.”) But that last lonely line is pure genius. In Huck’s sweet accent, Twain captures the spirit of an adolescent nation determined to resist domestication and to keep exploring the unknown.
“There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.”
by Kate Chopin (1899)
At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Hedda Gabler” (1891), a trapped and passionate woman shoots herself in the head, and her old friend exclaims, “Good God! — people don’t do such things.” A few years later, Chopin ran right up against those same stultifying expectations in her last novel, “The Awakening,” about a wife and mother who falls in love with another man and begins to imagine a different life. Although it inspired considerable condemnation at the time, it’s now recognized as one of the earliest modernist novels and a foundational feminist text. The first readers were shocked by the heroine’s decision to walk into the sea and drown herself. Even today, Chopin’s final image of sensuous natural beauty is deeply unsettling.
by Toni Morrison (1987)
Morrison’s classic novel about slavery begins with this enigmatic line: “124 was spiteful.” We come to understand that animus slowly, as the story of a murdered baby moves backward and forward in time, before and after the Civil War. Of course, former slaves and historians had described the horrors of slavery before, but nearly 125 years after Emancipation, Morrison made the psychological legacy of the South’s peculiar institution palpable as no other book ever had. After so much trauma and the exhausting exorcism that concludes the novel, what other ending would do but a final invocation of that child who represents so many snuffed out by our nation’s foundational sin? “Beloved.”
“We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.”
by Richard Ford (2012)
Ford is better known for his books about real estate agent Frank Bascombe, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, but this novel is his finest. It’s a deeply contemplative story about a man whose inept parents were imprisoned for bank robbery, leaving him and his twin sister to fend for themselves when they were 15. Ford describes the adolescents’ harrowing adventures in beautifully polished sentences. But even more arresting is the book’s moral struggle to understand and forgive his parents’ failings — and his own. That final line, with its simple, imploring repetition, concludes the novel with just the right spirit of affirmation and regret.
“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
“The Catcher in the Rye,”
by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Holden Caulfield would scoff at the idea, but he’s served ably as the patron saint of disaffected teens for almost 70 years. His mix of treacly self-pity, witty cynicism and clinical depression speaks for millions of lonely people forced to endure a world of phonies. His final advice, not to tell anybody anything, could have run anywhere in the novel, but it sounds especially poignant at the end of his journey. It’s a plaintive acknowledgment that his wandering confession to us has brought him no comfort. Considering Salinger’s many decades as the nation’s most famous recluse, we’re tempted, of course, to consign that same pain to the author.
“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
“A Christmas Carol,”
by Charles Dickens (1843)
Dickens didn’t “invent Christmas,” as a recent movie starring Christopher Plummer claims, but the Victorian novelist certainly taught us how to celebrate it. His story about a reformed miser was an immediate bestseller, and, a few years later, he began offering public readings that attracted enormous crowds in England and America. Repetition — and cynicism — may have reduced Tiny Tim’s final prayer to a saccharine cliche, but the tale of lives reformed and saved has lost none of its real sweetness.
“He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”
The Modern Prometheus,”
by Mary Shelley (1818)
In 1816, Lord Byron suggested to friends vacationing with him in Switzerland that they each write a ghost story. In response to that challenge, 18-year-old Mary Shelley conceived of the world’s most famous monster. Although two centuries have passed since Dr. Victor Frankenstein “turned loose into the world a depraved wretch,” his creature’s plaintive cry still moves anyone who has a beating heart. Tortured by loneliness, the monster ultimately flees to the North Pole, and the doctor dies in pursuit. How brilliant to end the novel with the grieving creature drifting away into the vast darkness — and whiteness — at the end of the world.
“Reader, I did not even have coffee with him. That much I learned in college.”
“A Gate at the Stairs,”
by Lorrie Moore (2009)
Novels and short stories make different demands on their forms — and their readers. That contrast is most evident in the final moments. Lorrie Moore, one of the best short story writers alive, once said, “The end of a story is really everything,” and for many years it seemed she had abandoned novel writing altogether. Then — after a 15 year hiatus — came “A Gate at the Stairs,” about a witty young woman trying to figure out adult life in the face of two unspeakable tragedies. You can see in this novel’s last words how successfully Moore switches registers. Knowing that the complex power of her book is already complete, the very ending offers a sigh of emotional relief: a wry repudiation of “Jane Eyre.”
“I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”
“Gilead,” by Marilynne
Perhaps the greatest failure of American literature, which is so bravely explicit about all other aspects of life, is its nervous avoidance of anything explicitly religious. Not so “Gilead,” the first book in Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy about two families in Iowa. “Gilead” is not only one of the finest novels of the 21st century, it’s also one of the most theological. The narrative comes to us as a sprawling letter written by John Ames, a 77-year-old Congregationalist minister who fears he might die soon. What, he asks himself, must he tell his 7-year-old son before he’s carried away to imperishability? In prose of striking clarity, Rev. Ames describes adventures both historical and spiritual. His testimony, sealed with that line from “King Lear,” is enough to convert anyone to the power of great fiction.
“After all, tomorrow is another day.”
“Gone With the Wind,”
by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Americans have consistently called Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel one of their very favorites. It was a bestseller when it was published during the Great Depression, and just last year, it ranked No. 6 on PBS’s “Great American Reads.” But like several of our most popular books — I’m looking at you, “To Kill a Mockingbird” — its immortality has been buttressed by an exceptionally memorable film adaptation. All kinds of spot-on criticisms have been leveled against the novel (and producer David Selznick’s 1939 movie) for its romanticized racism. But no one can forget Vivien Leigh — I mean Scarlett O’Hara — uttering that blithely optimistic line, which has since slid away from its source and entered our vernacular as an expression of gallows humor. It’s also worth noting that Mitchell didn’t coin the phrase; it appeared as a well-known maxim in the first volume of Harper’s Weekly in 1857.
“She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”
“The Grapes of Wrath,”
by John Steinbeck (1939)
Four decades later, I can still feel the shock of reaching the end of Steinbeck’s novel about an Oklahoma family traveling to California in search of work. Although initially attacked for its fierce critique of unregulated capitalism, “The Grapes of Wrath” was a phenomenal bestseller and won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Even today, millions of people think of the ravages of the Great Depression through the lens of Steinbeck’s story. Its final scene, the culmination of a relentless series of hardships, losses and deaths, offers a moment of startling compassion and intimacy — the very milk of human kindness made flesh.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
“The Great Gatsby,”
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Only months after it was published, Fitzgerald referred to “Gatsby” as a “flop,” and copies of the second printing were gathering dust in the publisher’s warehouse 15 years later when he died. Now, of course, his story about a handsome gangster is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It’s also one of the most poetic novels ever written, as this gorgeous closing line demonstrates. The mourning narrator, Nick Carraway, places Gatsby’s romantic quest in the context of those first Dutch settlers who projected their hopes on the lush shores of this now corrupted country. We know, he laments, that our first dreams can never be realized, but we can’t help pining for them anyhow.
“Are there any questions?”
“The Handmaid’s Tale,”
by Margaret Atwood (1985)
If you haven’t read Atwood’s dystopian novel since it was first published, you may have forgotten what follows the story of Offred’s resistance to the Republic of Gilead. The book ends with an epilogue that takes place at an academic conference in the year 2195. Professor Pieixoto describes the challenges of transcribing the story we’ve just read from 30 cassette tapes found in an army footlocker. Lapsing into the bland objectivity of academia, the professor warns his fellow scholars to be “cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific.” The lessons of the past, he notes chillingly, are obscured by the passage of time. When the applause dies down, he asks, “Are there any questions?” Those of us staring at a Supreme Court now tipping away from women’s reproductive rights probably have several questions. Perhaps they will be answered in a sequel that Atwood plans to publish in September called “The Testaments.”
“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
by Ralph Ellison (1952)
It’s possible to measure the weight of a novel by the size of its impact crater. Ellison’s masterpiece, which won the 1953 National Book Award, remade the terrain of African American fiction — and American fiction. “I am invisible,” the unnamed narrator says at the start, “simply because people refuse to see me,” but by the end, no one could ever ignore him. The story he tells — sometimes horrific, sometimes absurd, often both — takes him across the country, from a Southern “state college for Negroes” to Harlem, where he falls in and out with a black activist group. In the final pages, the narrator knows some readers will continue to ignore the relevance of his life: “You’ll fail to see how any principle that applies to you could apply to me.” But he knows that’s not true. In fact, he confesses that the universality of his experience “frightens” him.
“I wish you all a long and happy life.”
“The Lovely Bones,”
by Alice Sebold (2002)
The plot of Sebold’s debut novel sounds equally gruesome and mawkish: Susie, a 14-year-old girl, is raped and murdered by a neighbor, and then she describes her family’s reaction from heaven. Theologically, the story is a gooey mess of New Age mysticism, but it’s emotionally effective because Sebold got Susie’s voice just right. Although she’s still a teenager with a teenager’s silly attitudes and interests, death has given her preternatural insight into the suffering of those she’s left behind. Her simple, final wish looks banal out of context, but after watching her family — and her murderer — for years, it’s devastatingly pure.
“For an instant, everything was bathed in radiance.”
by Geraldine Brooks (2005)
The father of the four March sisters is just a minor character in Louisa May Alcott’s beloved “Little Women” (1868), but Geraldine Brooks put him at the center of her historical novel “March,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. This Civil War story cleverly blends biographical details about the real Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, with elements of the fictional Mr. March, who has gone south to serve as a chaplain to Union soldiers. Alcott gives little indication of what horrors may have shaken Father during his fight for abolition, and “Little Women” ends with Mrs. March saying, “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this.” But by the time March returns to his happy home at the end of Brooks’s novel, we know him as the haunted survivor of carnage — and a crushing spiritual crisis. The light of a single lamp brought into his dark parlor arrives like a foretaste of grace.
“And Madeleine kept squinting, as though Mitchell was already far away, until finally, smiling gratefully, she answered, ‘Yes.’”
“The Marriage Plot,”
by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
Every once in a while a novel ends with the satisfaction of a final puzzle piece snapping into place — somehow both inevitable and surprising at the same time. Such is the effect of the last line of Eugenides’s most recent novel, which seems in retrospect constructed to bring us directly to these three letters. “The Marriage Plot” is a cerebral romantic comedy about Madeleine, a thoroughly modern young woman who gets her ideas of love from 18th- and 19th-century fiction. Torn between two very different men, Madeleine endures real tragedy before finally correcting her course, which we, her desperate fans, can’t know for sure until that very last word. Of course, Eugenides is also echoing the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” whose last extraordinary sentence is about 4,000 words long and ends with Molly Bloom’s boundless enthusiasm: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
“He loved Big Brother.”
by George Orwell (1949)
Orwell’s classic dystopian novel about a totalitarian state has never gone out of print, but it got a huge boost two years ago from the election of Donald Trump. His administration’s unprecedented readiness to lie and to repeat lies aggressively reminds many readers of the Party that rules Oceania. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works as a reviser of historical records in the Ministry of Truth before becoming a member of a doomed resistance movement. The novel’s final scenes of physical torture — including the gruesome “rat helmet” — are undeniably terrifying, but what’s most chilling is the government’s success at twisting the very minds of its subjects. In that haunting last line, we see the ultimate success of Big Brother’s deception, and we feel the full atrocity of what’s been done to Winston.
“He runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”
by John Updike (1960)
When we first meet 26-year-old Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, he decides on a whim to run away from his wife and toddler. It’s a “monstrously selfish” act borne of panic over his lost youth and the soul-crushing responsibilities of adult life. Rabbit eventually crawls home, determined to be better, but his flight instinct is not so easily quelled. In the final pages, at the worst possible moment, he flees again, which Updike captures in that closing line swelling with deliverance and cowardice. There is no better portrayal of 20th-century white men than the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rabbit” series, which went on to include “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit Is Rich,” “Rabbit at Rest” and the novella “Rabbit Remembered.” Each book ends with an echo of the first novel’s last word, a subtle coda that ties together the stages of Rabbit’s life.
“In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
This novel, about a man and his little boy walking through an apocalyptic wasteland, mesmerized — and terrified — readers. “The Road” won a Pulitzer Prize and even spurred the normally shy author to agree to speak with Oprah for his first-ever television interview. What accounts for the power of this bleak tale to shake even the most cynical readers? I think it’s the tension between the countryside’s utter destruction and the father’s adamant love, all rendered in a style as spare as a sun-bleached bone. We arrive at the final page in a state of utter desolation. At that moment, McCarthy suddenly breaks away from his characters and describes trout that once swam in mountain streams. After the gray and blood-soaked pages that came before, it’s shockingly beautiful and places humanity’s horrors against the boundless life of the Earth.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“The Sun Also Rises,”
by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
Hemingway’s vaguely autobiographical story about a group of dissipated friends in Europe after World War I has aged well. Its desultory plot and muffled despair still feel strikingly modern. But how painfully ironic that America’s most macho author should be remembered for a novel about an impotent man. In this closing scene, the lovely Lady Brett tempts Jake once again to imagine what “a damned good time” they could have had. But Jake isn’t having it anymore. The chaos and disappointments of the preceding months have cured him of pointless fantasies, and he dismisses Brett’s romantic speculation with this bitter rhetorical question.
“She called in her soul to come and see.”
“Their Eyes Were Watching God,”
by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
“The fact that there is no demand for incisive and full-dress stories around Negroes above the servant class is indicative of something of vast importance to this nation,” Hurston wrote in 1950. She knew firsthand the deleterious effects of that lack of demand. Her first book, “Barracoon,” never found a publisher during her lifetime. Her extraordinary novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” fell out of print and was essentially forgotten, until Alice Walker rediscovered it in the 1970s. Now, fortunately, the tumultuous story of Janie, a black woman in Florida, is firmly rooted in the canon of American literature, and every year new readers “come and see.”
“and it was still hot.”
“Where the Wild Things Are,”
written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1963)
The tale of Max, the mischievous boy sent to bed without his supper, was Sendak’s greatest achievement, the perfect pairing of text and image. In fewer words than most novelists use in a single paragraph, Sendak managed to capture our fundamental fears and thrills. When Max “gave up being king of where the wild things are,” sailed back to his room and found dinner waiting for him, his mother’s love is confirmed, and the natural order of his world is restored. For generations of us, this is the first final line that knocked our booties off. And we never forgot it.