A book's final sentence is the ribbon on a packaged plot, tied neatly and prettily before an author hands her story over to her readers' imaginations for good. It's a last chance for a good first impression.
Some last lines have the power to disrupt the course of an entire story, shaking up our expectations. Others leave us hanging, and still others provide a cathartic sense of closure. A beautiful, or at least effective, final sentence anchors a story in a reader's mind long after the book is finished.
Here are 21 of our favorite last lines in literature:
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It'd be a glaring omission to not mention Fitzgerald's oft-quoted thesis about the American Dream.
"“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” From The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
God, is anything more beautifully, simply written than these final lines? We don't think so.
"A sound of clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet. Alex snapped open his eyes, and he and Bennie both turned—whirled, really, peering for Sasha in the ashy dark. But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys." From A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Egan's theme of using music and sounds to convey nostalgia is wrapped up neatly here, and she paints the characters' lives as cyclical, like the playing of a favorite record.
"Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is." From Continental Drift by Russell Banks
A fitting conclusion to a book about globalization, and its power to rapidly change the world.
"Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat." From In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Ethereal and evocative, this line nicely wraps up Capote's deeply personal and heart-wrenching story.
“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” From To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The lines belong to Lily Briscoe, the novel's resident artist, but could just as easily describe the work of art that Woolf has just concluded.
"Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past." From My Antonia by Willa Cather
Like Fitzgerald's final lines, Cather's provide a poignant thesis statement.
"But that is another tale, and as I said in the beginning, this is just a story meant to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night." From Oh What a Paradise It Seems by John Cheever
That this sentence is the last line from Cheever's last novel makes it even more of a quaint, humble nod to his role as a teller of quiet, suburban stories.
"Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day." From Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Mitchell's famous last lines are at once heartbreaking and hopeful.
"He loved Big Brother." From Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The definitiveness of this brusque sentence has a blunting effect, highlighting the bleakness of Orwell's predictions.
"Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." From The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Angsty teens everywhere can relate to Holden's desire to quell his heightened emotions.
“'You can trust me,' R.V. said, watching her hand. 'I’m a man of my'" From The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
The last line of DFW's first novel hints at what else he had in store. Ending an entire book in the middle of a sentence is a bold and playful choice.
"Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below." From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The butterfly motif brings the concept of "lightness" to life; this final vignette captures the mood of the book perfectly.
“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.” From The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Ominous and syntactically exciting, this final line brings Conrad's dark novel full circle.
"Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead." From White Noise by Don DeLillo
"The cults of the famous and the dead" is such a punchy last line, it could just as well serve as the book's subtitle.
"'Excellently observed,' answered Candide; 'but we must cultivate our garden.'" From Candide by Voltaire
Here, Voltaire provides his final advice regarding constant philosophizing: sometimes it's more prosperous to do than to contemplate.
"She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life." From The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
We'll take any optimism we can get from curmudgeonly Franzen, regardless of whether or not it's meant in earnest (and in this case, it seems to be).
"In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment." From The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The dreaminess of this entire novel is punctuated with this final sentence, which is more of an ellipses than a stark period.
"As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free." From The Tempest by William Shakespeare
This is the last we hear from the Bard; it's the final line of his final play, a humble request for applause before he leaves the stage.
"And she comes to you, and she does not speak, and the others do not notice her, and she takes your hand, and you ready yourself to die, eyes open, aware this is all an illusion, a last aroma cast up by the chemical stew that is your brain, which will soon cease to function, and there will be nothing, and you are ready, ready to die well, ready to die like a man, like a woman, like a human, for despite all else you have loved, you have loved your father and your mother and your brother and your sister and your son and yes, your ex-wife, and you have loved the pretty girl, you have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you, though not in a creepy way, and so may you, may I, may we, so may we all of us confront the end." From How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
See what he did there?! About confronting the end?! Brilliant.
". . . and 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." From Ulysses by James Joyce
The above is only a portion (we wouldn't be able to fit all of it in this article), but we couldn't NOT include one of the longest last sentences in literature. The last chapter of Ulysses is Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness, and it's simply amazing.