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The Best Final Lines in Literature

Different authors take different approaches to ending their novels. The prolific Joyce Carol Oates, for example, believes “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” Novelist and playwright Colm Tóibín, on the other hand, suggests that “Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep — it can't be done abruptly.” Science-fiction author Frank Herbert, meanwhile, keeps it simple: “There is no real ending. It's just the place where you stop the story.”

Whatever the approach, nailing the ending is arguably the trickiest part of any story: If an author comes up short with their finale, the reader will be left unsatisfied at best, or angry at worst. The following closing lines are often considered among the finest in literature, whether they are happy or sad, hopeful or hopeless, and in some cases simply heart-wrenching. And, yes: spoiler alert.

He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.
Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus"

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Regretful of his actions and companionless after the loss of his creator, the Monster states his intention to kill himself, now that he is reconciled with death. He pushes himself off on an ice raft into the darkness of the Arctic Ocean, to die alone in isolation. But wait: No one actually sees the Monster die. Is he still out there? It’s a sad ending, but it’s a classic horror finale.

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.
Mark Twain, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

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So here we stand, at the end of a great adventure, with Huck ready to set off on further escapades rather than go back to Aunt Sally and be civilized. It seems simple at first, but the ending of Huckleberry Finn is ambiguous, a fact that has led to much commentary and analysis.

Is Huck simply fated to a life on the frontier and a potentially futile quest for American freedom? Will he end up a cog in the idea of Manifest Destiny, perhaps playing a part in the subjugation of Native Americans? Is he no real hero at all, just a morally conflicted boy? Twain leaves this for the reader to decide.

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness"

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Heart of Darkness ends geographically where it began: with the crew of the Nellie anchored on the River Thames, looking at London. The ominous ending, however, brings about a symbolic reversal. The journey into the Congo was supposedly a trip into the heart of darkness, but now Conrad presents London as that dark core, a center of European imperialism and moral bankruptcy.

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another … then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
James Joyce, "Ulysses"

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Joyce’s epic experimental work ends with a sentence that’s actually 3,687 words long, which is a bit long to include here in its entirety. It is the end of Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness soliloquy, which, like the novel itself, is near impenetrable for some readers and one of the greatest things ever written for others.

In these final lines, Molly reminisces about when she first met Leopold Bloom and knew she was in love with him, accepting him with an enthusiastic “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"

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Arguably the most famous closing line in literature, these words bring the reader back to the theme of memories of the past and their relationship with dreams of the future. And, specifically, the American dream, about which the novel is cynical. It’s a downbeat ending, finishing with a continued struggle, the boat going against the current, never able to move beyond the past.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
Virginia Woolf, "To the Lighthouse"

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Woolf’s modernist masterpiece unfolds through the shifting perspectives of each character's consciousness. Through their thoughts and observations, we see the vast spaces that must be crossed to connect with another human.

But while the characters’ attempts to bring about any order to life fall short, it is Lily’s final, exhausted brush stroke that sets down her vision, bringing a semblance of order and permanency through art.

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"

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The 19th-century British politician Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This concept is echoed in the last line of Animal Farm, as the farm animals watch the humans and pigs eat dinner together.

They can no longer tell the pigs and humans apart: The pigs have become as oppressive as the human farmers, corrupted by their newfound power. It’s a bleak commentary on political systems.

He loved Big Brother.
George Orwell, "1984"

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Orwell ends 1984 with one of the most devastating final lines in literature. The rebel Winston Smith, finally broken, looks at an image of Big Brother and experiences a sense of victory because he now loves his oppressor.

It is an unbearably bleak ending — but is there some hope? Margaret Atwood, author of the dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, has a slightly more optimistic theory.

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

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The novel's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is still struggling with alienation, angst, and communication right up until the end. But there seems to be a small ray of hope in the very last sentence. Rather than dismiss everyone who he has come across during the novel, Holden now acknowledges that he does value — and miss — some people.

The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
Joseph Heller, "Catch-22"

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For some 450 pages, Yossarian is caught in the titular Catch-22: the maddening idea that a soldier can’t plead insanity to escape the war, because wanting to escape the war is completely sane. With the final line, however, Yossarian finally breaks free.

Featured image credit: LucynaKoch/ iStock

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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