Contains spoilers. Obviously.
The closing lines of a book can end up defining it. They can bring a sense of closure to the story, complete plot threads and character arcs, or leave the reader wanting more with a cliffhanger. They’re much more significant in literary terms (as opposed to marketing) than the opening lines, which can often be drab, unmemorable and difficult to absorb due to the author’s lack of familiarity with the story – unless you’re Jane Austen, anyway. It’s a difficult/impossible task to compile a list of all my favourite endings to books, especially since I can’t claim to have read a significant portion of English literature – let alone the established canon – but I’m going to attempt it anyway. So here’s my top 10 list:
10. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)
“But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me. ‘Katniss, there is no District Twelve.”
These words form the colossal cliffhanger of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Suzanne Collins excels at bringing characters from despair to hope, and at bringing everything crashing down once again. At this stage of the novel Katniss has just been rescued from the death-match arena, surviving her second Hunger Games which were supposed to be a death sentence. Furthermore, her actions in the arena proved to be the final spark which blazed into life a rebellion against the Capitol and the brutal dictator, President Snow. Yet after this we learned that Peeta had been captured by the Capitol forces in their escape and then, finally, we’re given this final line that states Katniss’ home district is gone. We know that the government has firebombed the coal-covered District 12 and that her mother and sister are safe, but this shocking final message with its brutal lack of detail hammers it home as the reader runs out of words. We don’t know how many people survived – if any, nor the wider context of this attack. This cliffhanger is highly effective and is a taste of things to come in the third and final novel, Mockingjay.
9. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
” ‘And then what?’ said her dæmon sleepily. “Build what?” ‘The Republic of Heaven,’ said Lyra.”
This final line to my all-time favourite book, though not a literary masterpiece in itself like other lines in this list, remains a highly fitting conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy. The central theme to the books is that humanity should not look to a deity, real or otherwise, for meaning and purpose, but find and build it within themselves. The Republic of Heaven begins as an attempt to build a real society in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven which ends in war between the two, but it becomes clear that such a project is doomed to fail as people cannot inhabit other worlds than their own in the long-term. Earlier in the book Lyra is told by a ghost, “We must build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.” At first she probably didn’t understand this, but her assertion at the end of the novel indicates she has embraced this philosophy. Knowing there is no conscious existence after death, nor hope of life in other worlds, Lyra has accepted after multiple sacrifices that she must live as fulfilling a life as possible in her own world during her own lifespan, bringing the thematic journey of the series to a satisfying conclusion.
8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1931)
“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…”
This somewhat graphic description of John the Savage’s suicide brings Brave New World to a close. These final lines are powerful because of the sheer brutality of their imagery, using the comparison of compass needles and an agonisingly long, drawn out list of directions to create a vivid image of his feet dangling from above. This makes the ending far more effective, as his suicide had been built up to throughout the book as he struggled to adapt to this horrific new world he found himself in, and particularly after the confused and drug-induced events in the previous scene where he let down all his moral barriers, which could have made the ending seem predictable otherwise.
7. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)
“Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.”
This closing line is important for several reasons. Pagford’s divisions are laid bare between its wealthy residents and deprived families by the former’s collective act of looking away from the coffin of the woman who epitomised the latter, Terri Weedon. The people of Pagford have made no success throughout the novel in understanding people in situations different from their own. Their averted gaze symbolises the ignorance they held the family’s condition in, continuing to view their faults as self-imposed rather than the result of institutional, generational poverty. For a novel which explores all aspects of human society, the good and the bad, this may seem surprisingly hopeless, though it’s important to remember the individual characters who have been redeemed throughout the novel. This final line, then, confirms the novel’s message that although humans may see positive changes on an individual level over the course of the novel’s timespan, societal change is a much slower, messier process.
6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning- So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”
Fitzgerald’s lyrical writing flows from the page to summarise the novel’s themes, told by the narrator Nick Carraway. These final paragraphs offer us two contrasting visions: the first of a temporary setback in reaching their dreams – the American Dream – and the second revelation that obsessively seeking your dreams, as was the case with Gatsby, merely drags you further into the past as you seek to recreate former glory. Which is doomed to fail because, as Nick enlightened us earlier, “you can’t repeat the past.” Furthermore, this is confirmation that the entire concept of the American Dream is a lie, or obsolete in this postwar world. These final lines show us why The Great Gatsby remains hugely relevant for American society today.
5. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
“Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
The closing line of this wonderful short story completes the narrator’s mental breakdown having been confined to a bedroom in solitary confinement so she can ‘rest’, a barbaric but oh-so Victorian way of treating depression. We watch the narrator’s mental state unravel as she becomes obsessed by the patterned wallpaper in her room, fixating all her world’s meaning upon it, and begins ritually walking round the room stripping the paper off. Her husband, upon viewing her, faints, but this does not deter her and she continues walking her path over him. These closing lines show just how removed from reality she has become that she is unable to even contextualise her husband’s identity and wellbeing, so severe has her mistreatment been.
4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)
“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
This last line of Adam Ewing’s diary brings this epic of a novel to a close. By this point we’ve witnessed six different time periods, movements to abolishing slavery, multiple personal adventures, revolutions and even the end of civilisation itself. In each of the six stories it is heavily implied that a major character is the reincarnation of another from a previous story. Whether Mitchell means this literally or as a metaphor for the consistent nature of the human soul, be it habit of the strong to exploit the weak or the enduring power of love, this final line must summarise not just the entire book but also humanity in its entirety.
3. Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. 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.”
This classic ending to Animal Farm completes the story’s circular plot of the farm being ruled by oppressive humans, the animals themselves in a brief period of freedom before being oppressed once again by the pigs. Orwell masterfully shows the pigs gradually adopting more manlike manners by reneging on their laws outlawing alcohol and murder, among others, and then by the pigs entering the farmhouse and sleeping in human beds. These closing lines bring this process to its natural conclusion where the pigs, to all intents and purposes, have become men. As this is Orwell there is inevitably a political purpose, and here it is to show how the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union have become indistinguishable from the former Tsarist regime. Never has there been a more successful allegory.
2. Ulysses – James Joyce (1922)
“and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes 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.”
Without a doubt the most unorthodox quote you’ll find on this list, the final lines of Ulysses (as opposed to the final sentence, which is over three thousand words long) brings some perhaps surprising order to this novel that so many people find unfathomable. Throughout the day of Leopold Bloom, described in eye-watering levels of detail, he has been portrayed as a gentle and kind person, a protective father figure for Stephen, possessing moderate political views in opposition to xenophobic Irish nationalism and remarkable understanding towards his wife Molly, who has just begun an affair. As a result of this he is frequently emasculated by characters throughout the book, particularly during chapter 15’s nightmare sequence in which he is literally turned into a woman. His inadequacy as a hero is reinforced with the constant allusions to Homer’s Odysseus, proving himself to be the stark opposite of this bold, heroic figure. And yet, in Molly’s final soliloquy, her lasts thoughts before falling asleep are of Bloom as she remembers the day he asked her to marry him. We can finally recognise Bloom as the undoubted hero of the novel as he wins this ultimate victory against his rival for Molly – a victory not just for himself but for his values of tolerance. It becomes clear that Bloom is indeed a hero, and perhaps precisely the one that Ireland needs.
1. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)
“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Yes, Orwell again! These famous lines represent The Party’s ultimate victory over Winston, providing one of the bleakest yet most powerful endings in English literature. Throughout the novel Winston has opposed The Party and Big Brother, expressing his hatred of them both multiple times throughout. And yet Orwell shows that even the deepest convictions can be uprooted by force, in Winston’s case through systematic torture and the horrors of Room 101. The final sentence, deliberately basic in its construction, is an affirmation of Winston’s conversion, while the shift to a relaxed, reassuring tone expresses clearly how he has changed from the anguish-ridden man from the rest of the novel. Completely at odds to the rest of the book, these final lines serve as the ultimate warning to the power of totalitarian regimes to bend and breaks their citizens upon their own whims. It’s a message just as important today as it was in 1949.
Do you have any thoughts on this selection? Have I made any notable omissions you think I should reconsider (or read!)? Let me know in the comments!