Friday, August 17, 2012

Last Lines

Readers have long admired the first sentences of novels. But what about the last lines?

Most readers remember the first line of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”) How many recall the last line? (“It was the devious-cruising Rachel that, in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”)

Are last lines important? Are they memorable? Are they even supposed to be?

Many novels, even some good novels, seem to wind down at the end, until they just run out of sentences. The authors skillfully finish their stories, but the last lines lack any special power, mystery, or style.

For novelists, the danger of the last lines is unintentionally creating a trite, aphoristic ending that seems to wrap up the story, and in doing so, belies the novel’s own complex subtlety.

But isn’t it important to try to create an ending worthy of the rest of the book? After all, the last lines are the reader’s final impression of the novel.

The last lines of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are among of the most quoted endings of all novels. The narrator, Nick Carraway, looks out at the Long Island Sound. He thinks about the history of the island, Jay Gatsby’s hope for the future, and the past that trapped him. The last line is: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” It’s a beautiful image that captures the conflict of the novel without diminishing it.

In the 19th century, Dickens and other novelists often used the last chapter to catalog the fate of all the characters, and the last lines had a rounded, finished quality. In the 20th century, writers turned away from this practice to leave readers with a more open-ended last line.

In the final scene of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the Joads take shelter in a barn, and Rose of Sharon allows a starving stranger to breastfeed. The last sentence reads: “She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.” Steinbeck no doubt intended this scene as an expression of compassion, but at the time of the book’s publication in 1939, the ending was controversial for what it did not do. The critic of the Saturday Review wrote: “The fact is, the story has no ending. We are left without knowing what happens to the characters.”

Even today, with all our experience with the modern novel, many readers resent spending 300 pages with a cast of characters only to arrive at a “mid-air” ending. I’ve spoken to some readers who routinely read the last line of every novel before starting just so they know what they’re in for.  Some postmodern novels actually play with this expectation of a conclusion. David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System ends this way: “You can trust me,” R.V. said, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my

For writers, finding the balance—avoiding a trite ending while still closing the book in a satisfying way consistent with the novel’s tone—is not easy. In a scene in the film As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson, who portrays a romance novelist, is shown at his keyboard, writing the final lines of his latest novel. As he finishes, he reads the lines aloud to himself, raises both hands palms out, and says “Done!” In real life, I doubt most writers are able to come to the ending so simply and assuredly.

Ernest Hemingway was known to have struggled to find just the right ending for A Farewell to Arms. This summer, Simon and Shuster published a new edition of the novel with an appendix containing, for the first time, the different endings that Hemingway wrote as he tried to get it right. It turns out that he went through 47 different last lines before settling on one!

The final scene in the novel depicts Lieutenant Frederic Henry learning of the death in childbirth of his lover Catherine Barkley and the stillbirth of their son. The last sentence that Hemingway finally chose manages to convey the bleakness and numbness of Frederic Henry’s life at that moment: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” The Guardian critic recently called it “one of those perfect Hemingway sentences, expressively drained of expressiveness.”

John Irving obviously has his own theory about the importance of last lines, because he doesn’t begin writing a novel until he knows the last line. Then he writes the novel like an arrow pointed at that last sentence.

When I was writing Teller, a friend asked me: “How will you know how to end it?” At first, I dismissed the question. Of course, I would know how to write the ending. But later I discovered how profound the question is. How do you write the ending? To use an analogy, how do you land the plane?

In the first draft of Teller, the ending went like this:

Here I am now, the untethered Charlie Teller, shorn of the tools of my trade, devoid of name dropping, no longer haunting a drying-out star of one stage or another, not dancing like Paul Barkley, but limping, and yet no less light, and waiting to hear some other wisdom.”

Initially, this sentence seemed a fine ending, a picture of Charlie freed of his job as a ghostwriter, limping from his bullet wound and going off to the future, ready for new lessons to be learned.

But in the final draft, I decided instead to end the novel with an exchange between Jill and Charlie:

She laid her hand on the side of my face and leaned down and kissed me slowly on the lips. “We could always try it again,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling back. “We could always do that.”

This simple act of a kiss unifies the ending with the whole of the novel, because it repeats the gesture that Jill made when they first fell in love, and the gesture that Charlie longs for early in the novel, as they sit beside the river.

The dialog itself captures one of the central themes of the novel (the possibility of starting over), which is acted out in Charlie’s life and in many of his celebrity clients. But after all the conflicts and tragedies played out in the novel over that very theme, here Jill and Charlie appear to toss it off lightly, as if it were easily possible. Its cheerfulness disguises the challenges they’ll face and whether or not they actually do remain together.

Try this: Find a favorite novel and read the last lines. Are they evocative? Do they capture something about the characters, or the story, or the novel’s particular voice? Most importantly, do they make you want to go back and read the book?

Here are a few of my favorite last lines:

The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.
The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow

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.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain and misery.
The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

Have a haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 p.m. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.
The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever


  1. This is such an interesting topic, and it inspired me to rummage through the last pages my favorites books. Here's one:

    From "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver, a dead daughter addresses her mother:
    "Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember. Think of the vine that curls from the small square plot that was once my heart. That is the only marker you'll need. Move on. Walk forward into the light."

    1. I haven't read Poisonwood Bible, but that's great last line. The image of the vine curling from the plot is incredible. And the whole passage passes the test of making me now want to go read the novel. Thanks for sending it along.