It's often said that the first line in a book is the most important. But what about the last?
The last line's job, ultimately, is not to compel you to read on, but to compel you to wonder what could come next. Long after the first line has dissolved into a story's swirl, the last line's job is to float to the top of a reader's imagination, and bob about after the book is closed.
The most powerful payoffs can stop us in our tracks and change the entire meaning of a novel. Others can, in a single sentence, shift the focus from the characters onto ourselves. They can be haunting, poetic, funny, or sad. And some can just give us an ineffable sense of closure after a long, emotional read.
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).
'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.
'Within, walls continued upright, bricks met nearly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.'
One of the most chilling haunted house stories had to end with a bang. Well, in this case, less of a bang, more a shuddering, creepy fizzle. Hill House inhales fear and exhales nightmares, as Dr Montague and his team of ghost hunters quickly learn in this masterful story about the unspeakable terror of what lurks deep within us all. They gambled with their sanity at Hill House, and lost. The House always wins.
'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.'
Is a pig still a pig if he walks like a man, talks like a man, thinks like a man and acts like a man? And if pigs have become indistinguishable from man, what does that make man himself? That, in Orwell's devastatingly pessimistic view, is simply the cycle of revolutionary politics.
'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.