Thankfully, literature seldom submits to a powder-keg payoff in its final lines. Movie adaptions may require sunsets, happy couples hand-in-hand, final epic explosions or the slow fade of a happy family at dinner carving a joint, but books are far better at going more gently into the good night.
A successful final line doesn’t mean the end of the book. It just means the end of your physical reading experience. Some of the greatest denouements leave you cursing the author for not giving you firm resolve and neatly wrapped up lives, while encouraging you to hatch a fugitive state of plotting your own, myriad conclusions for what could, will, won’t or shouldn’t happen next. Other final lines are the equivalent of a good dessert at the end of a satisfying meal: the stuff you wish you could linger on for far longer than it physically lasts, holding close in memory long after it’s over.
The best last lines can stick in the mind forever. Few authors get it perfectly right. But here are a few who do.
(Oh, and it goes without saying, but this article contains a lot of spoilers).
He has five grim years left to serve in an adult penitentiary, and I cannot vouch for what will walk out the other side. But, in the meantime, there is a second bedroom in my serviceable apartment. The bedspread is plain. A copy of Robin Hood lies on the bookshelf. And the sheets are clean.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
Unconditional love takes many forms, but rarely has it manifested in a manner as disturbing as that of travel guide writer Eva’s love of her serial killer son Kevin. The dreams of an aspirational all-American family being brutally snuffed out by one psychotic teenager are visceral and violent throughout the book but the final lines, written by Eva to her dead husband (killed by Kevin) as she awaits his release from prison with something approaching happiness, is a masterpiece in accessing the full extent of a delusional mother’s love.
In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought
And then I did.
Like the guitar riff to ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ or the silk screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, it takes an artist of sublime talent to create something so simple. Bukowski, like Keith Richards, was a man who used words sparingly and never used a sentence when a single word would do. The ending to his first and finest novel - about his drunken, philandering travails while working as a postal clerk - is so taut, muscular, funny and personal that you can almost hear the man scrape back his chair, stub out his cigarette, crack his knuckles and open another bottle of 11am bourbon as he finishes writing these lines.
And so farewell from your little droog. And to all others in this story profound shooms of lip-music brrrrrr. And they can kiss my sharries. But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.
If you’ve only watched the conclusion of the Stanley Kubrick movie adaption, you’d believe that violent young thug Alex De Large was about to embark on yet another orgy of violence in a dystopian future Britain. Burgess’s novella, however, gives us an infinitely more benign ending. Teenagers can be horrible. But they grow up, get partners, settle down and experience their tidal rage regressing. Such is Alex’s fate; a man still liable to vent spleen in Burgess’s brilliantly inventive mock-Russian street slang. But a man who, just maybe, is about to embark on a different, less damaging path.
Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars down below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me; that summer returns to me with all its memories. Anne, Anne, I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Then something rises in me that I welcome by name, with closed eyes. Bonjour Tristesse!
Ah, the folly of youth. And a particularly vapid, entitled one at that. Such are the teetering emotions of young Cecile who, after having been mostly culpable for the death of her father’s new lover, reverts at the end of Sagan’s classic (written when she was just a teenager herself) to eulogising the now-dead woman who threatened her languorous, privileged existence by exhorting her to stop sleeping with older men and perhaps go back to studying. The flip-flop of adolescent emotions has never sounded as beguiling: Cecile has learnt nothing from her experiences. The final lines hint at her entering adult life every bit as cocooned from reality, but notably more damaged.
‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa he said
For there she was.
For a novel primarily about a party being disrupted by news of a suicide, the ending of Mrs. Dalloway almost borders on the optimistic. The revealing of Septimus’s death is the fulcrum of the events leading up to and circulating around the guests at Clarissa’s London soiree in the summer of 1923. But, in-keeping with Dalloway’s obdurate modernist style, the final lines are given to Peter Walsh, a relatively minor player in the book who, come 3:30am, feels uplifted when the hostess re-enters the room. The ending is like a vinyl record being lifted from the needle halfway through a song: we’re given no simple answers, but the impact of emotion Woolf imbues in the lines lands regardless.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. The three extra days were for leap years.
Last lines don’t come equipped with more gallows humour than this. Encapsulating the terror (that embraces everything from physical pain to calendar pedantry) of Stalin’s regime, the final lines of the account of a solitary day in a Soviet gulag seem to peel off the page, such are their deadening, excoriating impact.
But the hands of one of the partners were already at K’s throat, while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes, K could still see the two of them, cheek leaning against cheek, immediately before his face, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’, he said; it was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.
Logic and reason takes its final, fatal defeat in the last lines of Kafka’s claustrophobic masterpiece. As Joseph K realises that the miasma of bureaucracy that arrested him for no given reason has now tightened its grip around him to the point where escape is impossible. K’s final line on this earth: “like a dog”, sums up Kafka’s worldview: When it comes to the ability we have to rebel against larger, impersonal forces, we are no better than animals.
‘He watch a tugboat on the Thames, wondering if he could ever write a book like that; what everybody would buy. It was a summers night. Laughter fell softly; it was the sort of night that if you wasn’t making love to a woman you feel you was the only person in the world like that.’
Gruelling winters, no heat, little food, no work and institutional racism. For Moses, the Trinidadian hero of Selvon’s taut novel about the Windrush generation’s early years in London, all this is worth enduring for those brief glimpses of sun, sex and card games in the brief London summer. Optimism, aspiration and getting-on are the engines that constantly ploughs through the spume of violence and hostility. The last lines are poignant; maybe all this pain will, one day, be worth it.
The Japanese slipped forward with his camera, crouched and took two, three, four pictures in quick succession.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
The greatest horror writers swerve blood and gore almost entirely, instead preferring to weave suspense, ambiguity and atmosphere together and let the reader do the rest. When the satanic cult inhabiting a Gothic Manhattan apartment take Rosemary’s newborn child into their ‘care’, we are spared almost everything when it comes to a description of how the baby looks. We merely know that he (Adrian) is now with us and a grotesque parody of a family baby shower is under way; Japanese well-wishers with cameras and all.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past
A line that encapsulates the American Dream in 14 words. And it's a heartbreaker – poetic, memorable and as deep as the pool in which Gatsby meets his sorry end. Nick, our narrator, has spent the summer living it up with his enigmatic new friend Jay Gatsby, a war-profiteer-done-good who throws lavish parties and loves beautiful shirts, while chasing the love of a married woman. Only, it ends in tragedy. The American Dream is dead, and all Nick has left are memories and broken dreams.
After all, tomorrow is another day.
Set around the American Civil War, the Pulitzer-winning epic about collapsing worlds, rape and murder, slavery, starvation, war and doomed love not only gave literature the most brutal break up line in literature (“My dear, I don't give a damn”), but also one of the most hopeful final flourishes. These are the words of Scarlett who, despite a life of repeated disappointment, cannot help but see a silver lining. And we know she'll get Rhett back for his callousness. Someday.
In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
As we reach the end of this heartbreaking journey of a dying father and his son through an post-apocalyptic America that's overrun by cannibals, we are reminded of a universal truth: we may be living in a world ravaged by human avarice and arrogance, but the joke, really, is on us. Mother Earth will be just fine: she span about the sun long before we grew legs and brains, and she will continue spinning long after we wipe ourselves out.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this mesmeric and dazzlingly innovative portrait of a woman haunted by her past opens with the words, “124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom.” The baby in question, of course, is former slave Sephe's daughter, Beloved, whose ghost terrorises her home, reminding her of the unimaginable scars slavery has left on her. But finally, after she finally exorcises the demonic baby from her life, and finds some sort of closure, we are left with a final, grieving word, Beloved – an epitaph not just for the baby Sephe killed to save her from a life of servitude, but one for all the victims of America's own original sin.
'Oh, Jake,'”' Brett said, 'we could have had such a damned good time together' … 'Yes,' I said. 'Isn’t it pretty to think so?'
These are the last lines of one of the greatest stories ever written about unfulfilled love. Jake and his free-spirited old flame Brett are in love, but they can never be together. The real tragedy – and genius – of this final line is that there’s nothing wistful about it at all. It is Jake’s crushing and cynical realisation that, even without his war-inflicted impotence, he and Brett would never have worked. Their relationship was merely a charming dream that’s now slipping away forever.
'It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,' Mrs Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
If this were a movie then the camera would swing away from the medieval levels of violence that are about to commence. Jackson simply puts down her pen. She’s done enough already in describing what comes before the first stones are thrown at the lottery ‘winner’ in the most frightening short story of all time, combining tradition, mob violence and fear in a way that’s never been matched, let alone bettered in barely 20 pages.
‘Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
The ultimate closing line if you want pathos, fear and a genuine concern for the characters you’ve come to know. Orwell’s book is, of course, a satire about totalitarianism. But, unlike others who have explored this theme, Orwell’s ability to make you care for individuals is always as prevalent as the political parallels. By the closing lines we already know Boxer the horse has gone to the glue factory and that the animals live in the worst conditions of any farm in England. What will become of Muriel, Joseph and the rest? Those last lines of the pigs playing cards, drinking and brawling with the humans suggests that the four legged animals future lives, after the novel finishes, will contain fewer surprises than the pages we have just greedily devoured.
'She called in her soul to come and see.'
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston's cult masterpiece was one of the greatest to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. A book steeped in Black folklore and sensuality, Their Eyes Were Watching God revolves around Janey - a remarkable feminist hero - and her life before she falls in love with Tea Cake. Hurston's is a story of doomed love and fearsome spirit, both of which instill its final line.
'He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.'
Of course a man-made monster can't live a good life among humans – especially not one that's eight-feet tall with watery white eyes and translucent yellow skin. And the tragedy is that The Creature knows it... so he chooses to give back the gift of life and drift off, alone, to his death. These haunting last lines complete The Creature's tragic circle of life and is the resonant chord, in a minor key, that brings this masterpiece to its pitiful end.
'And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?'
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Ellison's masterpiece is about an man grappling with a world that won't accept him – he is an invisible black man in a visibly white world. Cryptic, poetic, enigmatic, this last line embodies Ralph Ellison's unnamed protagonist's greatest fear: that he does not only speak for himself, but for millions of people in the same position. That's one interpretation – there are many others, as this is one of the most debated last lines in books. Whatever it means, it get its claws firmly into you long after the last page is turned.
Image: Ana Yael for Penguin