Favorite Endings in Literature

A lot is made of great first lines in literature. 

Call me Ishmael.   Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. 

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. 

I am an invisible man.

Not a lot is said, however, of the often overlooked, but equally important closing paragraph.  Where the opening paragraph has to capture your interest and propel you down the page like Alice down the rabbit hole, the closing paragraph has to strike the right chord to both sum up some essential bit of the story and resonate with you long after you’ve closed the book.

Here are four of my favorite.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

                    “The Dead.”  James Joyce

“Nothing new.  They’ll go on being Mimi and Dorothy and Gilbert just as you and I will go on being us and the Quinns will go on being the Quinns.  Murder doesn’t round out anybody’s life except the murdered’s and sometimes the murderer’s.”

‘That may be,” Nora said, “but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.’”

                  The Thin Man.  Dashiell Hammett.

The seventh reader interrupts you: “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?  In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died.  The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

You stop for a moment to reflect on these words.  Then, in a flash, you decide you want to marry Ludmilla.

Now you are man and wife.  Reader and Reader.  A great double bed receives your parallel readings.

Ludmilla closes her book, turns off her light, puts her head back against the pillow, and says, “Turn off your light, too.  Aren’t you tired of reading?”

And you say, “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.”

            If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Italo Calvino.

“There is no instrument left that I can play,” Gwilan thought, and the thought hung in her mind for a while like a long chord, till she knew the notes that made it.  “I thought my harp was myself.  But it was not.  It was destroyed, I was not.  I thought Torm’s wife was myself, but she was not.  He is dead, I am not.  I have nothing left at all now but myself.  The wind blows from the valley, and there’s a voice on the wind, a bit of a tune.  Then the wind falls, or changes.  The work has to be done, and we did the work.  It’s their turn for that, the children.  There’s nothing left for me to do but sing.  I never could sing.  But you play the instrument you have.”  So she stood by the cold hearth and sang the melody of Orioth’s Lament.  The people of the household wakened in their beds and heard her singing, all but Torm; but he knew that tune already.  The unturned strings of the harps hung on the wall wakened and answered softly, voice to voice, like eyes that shine among the leaves when the wind is blowing.”

            “Gwilan’s Harp.”  Ursula Le Guin.

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