Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Great Books, Great Last Sentences

Earlier this month when we talked about favorite "book endings," we pretty much agreed that the list would have been more interesting if it were one of actual last lines rather than of plot descriptions. With that in mind, I decided this evening to look at some of my favorite books to see what their last lines were and whether or not the words were representative of the book as a whole.
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - "The woman," Dillard whispered. "The woman. They say he missed that whore." These three short sentences sum up one of the key relationships in the entire 843 page book.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - "I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her." This long sentence, typical of Dickens, sums up another of the great love relationships of literary history.

3. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving - "O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking You." This sentence perfectly sums up the tragic and permanent end of a friendship.

4. Andersonville - by MacKinlay Kantor - "When he had nearly reached the lane, birds rose before him like an omen." This is a last glimpse of the infamous Confederate prison camp in which so many Union soldiers died in misery.

5. The World According to Garp by John Irving - "But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." Irving ends the book with a final message to his readers.

6. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - "But I reckon 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." Some boys never grow up or change their ways, so why should Huck? This is still one of my favorite books of all time but it reads differently to me now that I've read Finn, the recently written story of Huck's psychopath of a father.

7. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy - "I can't tell you why I do it or what it means, but each night when I drive toward my southern home and my southern life, I whisper these words: Lowenstein, Lowenstein." I love this book and this last sentence made me wonder if Tom Wingo would ever manage to find peace.

8. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara - "It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the fourth of July." This sentence serves as a reminder of the great co-incidence that the tide of the Civil War turned for good on the eve of July 4, 1863. The ironies of history are sometimes astounding.

9. Time and Again by Jack Finney - "I reached Lexington Avenue, turned south and - the yellow lights of Gramercy Park awaiting at the end of the street - I walked on toward Number 19." A time traveler makes a critical decision about his future in the last sentence from the time travel book that made me a fan of time travel novels for the rest of my life. Jack Finney is the master of that genre.

10. Final Payments by Mary Gordon - "It was a great pleasure simply to be near them. There was a great deal I wanted to say." Thus ends one of the most touching first novels I've ever read in my life. I became a Mary Gordon fan based on this 1978 novel and I've never changed my mind about her great talent.
These are last sentences from some of my very favorite novels. As I went through the exercise of searching for these sentences, it became obvious to me that first sentences and last sentences of novels serve two very different purposes. Where the first sentence of a novel wants to grab your attention and not let you go, a last sentence often serves to summarize an entire book and to reinforce its central message or mood.

I'm happy that I took the time to pull the quotes because it reminded me of why I loved these books in the first place and made me want to re-read them yet again. They are like old friends I haven't seen in a while. We have some catching up to do.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I think I'll do the same thing. I love a book that has a wonderful last sentence. It just helps to cement the book in my mind.

  2. At least these are understandable in the context. When Anne Enright's The Gathering won the Booker Prize this year, the Chairman of the judges remarked that it had one of the best last sentences he'd ever read, or some such nonsense to that effect.

    That brilliant sentence? "And I am about to hit it now."

    A classic in the making...not.

  3. Lisa, what my little search taught me is that the last sentence of a book is every bit as important as the first. I'll probably be more aware of "last sentences" from now on, in fact.

  4. Stewart, I have to admit that's a bit of a letdown as a last sentence. Perhaps in context it would be striking...but thrown out there on its own it tells me nothing.

  5. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

    Last sentence of The Great Gatsby.

    What a beautiful sentence to end a book with.