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Via a Language Log entry, an attempt on Listable to list the Best Last Lines of English-Language novels.

Of course, the Best is “a far, far better thing” from A Tale of Two Cities. This suffers a bit from being taken out of context, but this is what happens with last lines (more than first lines, of course). You can read a list of a hundred or so first lines, and some of them will be really intriguing and make you want to read the book, and some will remind you of the feeling you had at the start of a book, when everything was new. Last lines, if you haven’t read the book, can’t be particularly evocative, so the only option is nostalgia, and the feeling evoked is the end-of-book feeling, which is often sad and occasionally disappointed, even when the last line is really good. And, of course, if you haven’t read the book, a really powerful last line may not mean anything at all, and even if you once read it, it’s possible you will have forgotten why that line in particular worked.

For instance, and I’m not sure I’m really nominating this for a Great Last Lines list, the last line of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs is “I never knew who my father was.” It’s Tarzan speaking, and he is lying, of course, but he has decided not to claim his title, nor Jane’s heart, so he lies to Jane’s fiancé, Clayton, who with the heir dead holds the Greystoke title. It’s rather affecting, really. But would you, coming on a list of Great Last Lines and seeing

  • “I never knew who my father was.” -Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
have any idea what it was doing there, or why that was a good Last Line? In fact, I think you could argue that a really good book with a really good ending will have a Last Line like that, where it is powerful when you read it at the end of the book, but has no power (or perhaps makes no sense) if you just pick it out and put it in a list. I mean, yes, the Last Line should have a kick to it, so such a list would make more sense than, say, a list of Lines-at-the-top-of-page-117, but not as much more as you might think.

That said, you knew, Gentle Reader, that YHB would not be able to resist. So here, for your enjoyment, are a handful of Last Lines, not the Best Ever, but lines I like from novels I like (for the most part) that I happened to have to hand.

  • No one will ever make a tragedy—and that is as well, for one could not bear it—whose grief is that the principals never met. -The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault
  • It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was. -The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  • Advertise, or go under -Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • And they walked away together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway. -Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
  • “Well, send her in.” -The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
  • He was very hungry that season. -A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • He never left the forest again. -Magister Ludi, or The Bead Game, Herman Hesse
  • “My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.” -Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Louise and Aylmer Maude, trans.
  • I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him. -The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • He gave me merry hell. -Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
  • But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me—even supposing— -Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  • ”Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar. -The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • To Nurse Edna, who was in love, and to Nurse Angela, who wasn’t (but who had in her wisdom named both Homer Wells and Fuzzy Stone), there was no fault to be found in the hearts of either Dr. Stone or Dr. Larch, who were—if there ever were—Princes of Maine, Kings of New England. -The Cider House Rules, John Irving
  • Men are only men. -The King Must Die, Mary Renault
  • The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off. -Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  • And all that cal. �A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • Which do you think it was? -Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll
  • He loved Big Brother. -1984, George Orwell
  • South-south-west, south, south-east, east ... -Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Well, that’s enough for a while, yes?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

You do realize that you have just caused me to skim the entire The Return of Tarzan in order to figure out how Jane comes to marry Tarzan? (Chapters 12, and 23-26, especially that zinger of a chapter 25!) And of course, the last line, "... bending down, Tarzan of the Apes kissed his mate upon her lips."


Me Vardibidian, you Jane. Or something.

And I missed one, because I don't much like the book, but it's one of the few really quotable Last Lines: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" -The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway.

Thanks,
-V.


One more last line of note: I've heard "'Well, I'm back'" quoted a lot more often than "'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo laughing...".


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