Opening lines get a lot of attention – heck, I’ve done round-up posts of them a couple of times over (here and here). But what about closing lines? Authors must be knackered by the time they get around to the end of their book, I’d understand if they just wanted to phone it in… but these guys managed to whip out one final zinger, a deeply satisfying note on which to leave their readers. Here’s my list of the best closing lines in literature.
(And if you think it’s possible to write a post like this without spoilers, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Don’t you dare complain to me if you read on!)
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
“After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Let’s start with something a little bit hopeful, a little bit inspirational, from the American classic Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has been abandoned by her true love, Rhett Butler, and she’s reassuring herself that tomorrow she’ll think of some way to win him back. The beauty of this aphorism is that it can be applied to almost any situation, because (in the end) it’s basically just a statement of fact, but one that sounds good.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
“He loved Big Brother.”
And now to something chilling and bleak: this terrifyingly cruel outcome for Winston, at the conclusion of Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a few hundred pages of frustration and rebellion against the omniscient dictatorship under which he lives, Winston sadly succumbs to their brainwashing and decides that he loves his leader. I’ll never forget the first time I read it: young, wide-eyed, naive, I struggled to believe that Orwell didn’t give Winston a happily ever after (you know, overthrowing a government). I’m still not over it, to be honest.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
OK, I unashamedly hated The Great Gatsby, but even I’ve got to concede that this is a corker of a closing line. It’s one we trot out whenever someone brings up The American Dream – finding it, losing it, exposing it, whatever – and for good reason. It’s just masterfully crafted, beautifully evocative… is there anything more frustrating than having to acknowledge how good something is when you didn’t like it? Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
“She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”
It’s not like Franzen is known for particularly optimistic takes, and indeed The Corrections isn’t a particularly optimistic book… but, looking at it in isolation, I really like the hopeful ring in this closing line. It’s determined, it’s upbeat – it brings to mind a spritely granny who’s heading out in her active wear for an afternoon power-walk. Right?
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
“The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”
I’ve said before that The Bell Jar is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – and Plath didn’t miss an opportunity to hit me over the head with one last clanger. I love the discordance of an ending that’s about entering a room (which is where you’d logically expect a story to start, not finish). Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”
I’ve heard Annie Proulx say in interviews that she’s a bit “over” talking about Brokeback Mountain – in light of the incredibly popular film adaptation – but I can’t help including this closing line in a list of the best. It’s like the literary equivalent of the serenity prayer (accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, etc.). I think everyone can relate, in some small way, to the pain and disillusionment that Proulx captures here.
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
“Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.”
I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of The Makioka Sisters, let alone read it, before I started putting together this list… but I came across it in another best-of closing lines compilation, and I laughed out loud, disturbing everyone in my immediate radius. It’s just such a wry, blunt statement! As it turns out, Tanizaki’s story is a really heart-wrenching one (from the plot summary, it sounds like the Japanese equivalent of The Grapes Of Wrath), but I love this matter-of-fact translation of its closing line.
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
“At that, as if it had been the signal he had waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.”
Perhaps I only like this one because I thought Newland Archer was a weak-willed nincompoop, and I was happy to see The Age Of Innocence end with him alone and miserable, but it’s still a beautiful closing line. Quick recap: Newland is standing alone outside a building, knowing that his “true love” (with whom he carried on an affair in his youth, behind his wife’s back) is inside, but he lacks the gumption to go in and say hello. Instead, he heads back to his own hotel alone (to masturbate and cry, probably). Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”
Raymond Chandler is beloved for his place writing, and how well he captured Los Angeles’s unique ambience in the early 20th century, but as I said in my review of another of his novels (The Big Sleep), I actually enjoyed his characterisation more. He came up with incredible metaphors and similes to really nail his characters, and a bit of that comes through in this closing line from The Long Goodbye: you can just pictured the beleaguered smirk that accompanies it, can’t you?
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
Hemingway famously put a lot of effort into his closing lines. He re-wrote the ending of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are still plenty of readers who insist that he got it wrong!), but I don’t think there’s any argument that this closing line, from A Moveable Feast, was his best.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
“An excellent year’s progress.”
To end back on a lighter note, I love this beauty from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Perhaps it’s not quite as good out of context – Bridget has just summed up her year in alcohol consumed, cigarettes smoked, weight gained and lost, and boyfriends dumped and won – but I think that it holds up. And it’s certainly a line I’ve borrowed myself once or twice around New Year’s Eve…
(Kisses and hugs to everyone who buys a book through one of these affiliate links – finishing all these books ain’t cheap!)
Which beautiful endings have stuck with you? Which closing lines do you think are the best? Drop your additions to this list in the comments below (or join in the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).