Last Sentences of Novels

John Rentoul

Rye catcher 190x300 Last Sentences of NovelsI had a Top 10 Last Sentences of Novels in The New Review, The Independent on Sunday magazine yesterday, a companion piece to Top 10 First Sentences. As I said, my rules about single, complete sentences shorter than 140 characters limit turned out to be quite restrictive.

Single sentences ruled out some promising entries:

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?‏ Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint. I haven’t read it, but Loveandgarbage explains: The whole book is Portnoy’s monologue to his psychiatrist. This is the only thing the psychiatrist says.

The 140-character limit also cut off some popular nominations:

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. George Orwell, Animal Farm. Sorry, Ezekiel Kamara.

Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.

It also ruled out of order that James Joyce one that ends yes I said yes I will Yes, which is not bad as a last line, but as a last sentence goes on a bit.

Of those that made the final cut, The Great Gatsby was subject to late appeals, including from my friend Matt Hoffman, a former colleague at The Independent and literary editor of Time Out in the 1970s: “‏Isn’t this metaphor, literally, backwards? The past is the source of the river, the future is where it’s going.” These objections were overruled. I always thought it referred to the tide, as in the Thames estuary. The direction doesn’t matter: the point is the struggle to prevent the current carrying you where you don’t want to go. Anyway, it’s poetic licence, isn’t it?

So to those that didn’t make it:

Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain. Thomas Hardy, Mayor of Casterbridge. Nominated by Deborah Mattinson. A good encapsulation of Hardy’s cheerful approach to life rather than a great last sentence of its own.

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. Nominated by Kensal Rise. Ho hum.

The song died away; they heard the river, bearing down the snows of winter into the Mediterranean. EM Forster, A Room With A View. Nominated by Henry VIIII .‏ Pleasant but inconsequential.

We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold. Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Nominated by Michael Ezra. Don’t like it.

The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off. Joseph Heller, Catch 22. Nominated by John Blake. One of my favourite books, but the sentence itself means little without all that goes before.

It was the devious cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Nominated by Nigel Wimpenny. Not my kind of thing.

Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine. Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano. Nominated by Padstersdad. ‏All right in an absurdist way.

After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. Brian Millar ‏says this is a fabulous piece of underwriting, and that Hemingway wrote 47 variations. Well, it is certainly underwritten.

And that’s that. J.B. Priestley, Angel Pavement. Nominated by Helena Moon. Good, but too short and obvious.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Nominated by Madelaine Morris, and many others. Not in a million years.

There is also a website featuring First lines and last lines of several novels.

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  • JohnJustice

    Not sure how these last lines conform to your rules JR but they contain a wonderful puzzle word which provides the key to how a complex novel about sibling rivalry based on the Cain and Abel story from the Bible is finally resolved.

    Adam looked up with sick weariness. His lips parted and failed and tried again. Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered word seemed to hang in the air:
    His eyes closed and he slept.

    The novel is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The puzzle word is “Timshel” which is the Hebrew word for”thou mayest” and the answer to the old Chinese family friend, Lee, pleading for the forgiveness of the Cain character, Caleb, for in effect killing his brother Aron (the Abel character) at the deathbed of his father, Adam.

  • porkfright

    Yes- the 140 characters limit idea was indeed completely stupid.

  • Pacificweather

    From the ridiculous…

    I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita - Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    To the sublime…

    One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”  - Slaughterhouse- Five by Kurt Vonnegut 

  • reformist lickspittle

    No “He loved Big Brother”?

  • greggf

    My love of animals may be evident from my avatar but this from Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith was a recent favourite:

    He thrilled as each cage door opened and the wild sables made their leap and broke for the snow – black on white, black on white, black on white, and then gone.

  • porkfright

    “So she passed in the Pyramid of Fire,” said Dyson, “and they passed again to the underworld, to the places beneath the hills”. The Shining Pyramid, by Arthur Machen.

  • Elena

    My favourite is “Madame Curie” by Eve Curie. But I read it in Russian, so I can’t post the last sentences of the Novel.

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