Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The End of The Affair: Last Lines of Novels and What They Tell Us

Last month I examined the first lines of novels and how authors use different strategies to capture the reader. This month I will be looking at last lines, the different kinds of messages they send, and how they can leave the reader feeling about the novel as a whole. I am interested here in how fully an author decides to engage in the outside world as their fiction is coming to an end.

Throughout reading a novel, the author's voice has been a constant companion for the reader for 300 or 500 pages, and then that voice is gone; there has to be a grand, important reason why it stopped when it did, on that particular sentence. A novel is a complex thing, and quoting beginning or ending lines is only one way to begin to explore the depth of a work. Too often the famous opening and closing lines of novels become shorthand for a writer or the novel they wrote. But literature isn't a shorthand art form and what's special about last lines is ultimately what's special about the novel as a whole.


Some last lines act as punch lines, shedding light on why a work was titled the way it was: 

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

When Rosa and Joe picked it up they saw that Sammy had taken a pen and , bearing down, crossed out the name of the never-more-than-theoretical family that was printed above the address, and in its place written, sealed in a neat black rectangle, knotted by the stout cord of an ampersand the words  KAVALIER & CLAY.
—Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

These endings wrap things in a type of neat narrative bow, providing the reader something to take away on a silver platter. These endings seem content to stay within the little fictional words they have created.

Other authors try to combine wrapping up their story with a little wink about the title with a grander statement. Some of these grander statements indicate that these authors are at least putting some pressure on the walls that enclose their fictional universes, indicating that ultimately they have bigger fish to fry:

But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.
—John Irving, The World According to Garp

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
—James Joyce, The Dead

These authors are also calling an end to their fictional world, but they seem less than thrilled about it. Their vision of the world beyond their story is bleak.

The End of Everything

The extreme version of this attitude is the quite prevalent notion, perhaps present in the Joyce quote above and certainly detectable in the quotes below, that if the novel is over, so is the world itself. In the wrong hands this can seem obnoxious and self-important, but when done skillfully, it is just the ultimate attempt to prove how important, how earthshaking, the book just completed really is:

I will never come back, and if I do there will be nothing left, nothing left but the headstones to record what has happened; there will really be nothing at all.
—John Cheever, The Wapshot Scandal

Leave me alone forever.
—Graham Greene, The End of The Affair

Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
—Russell Banks, Continental Drift

These writers are not only tearing down the fictional walls that encase their stories, but they are also insisting that their fictional world is all there is, or all that matters, anyway. If they are forced to stop, or end, these authors contend, everything else will end too-at least it will feel that way.


Conversely, there are the authors who push beyond the boundaries of the novel and act as if the end of the book is the beginning of something-a dialogue with the reader, perhaps. This can be accomplished by the author signing off by asking the reader a question:

Any questions?
—Margaret Atwood,  The Handmaid's Tale

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Could the truth be so terrible? So simple?
—Tim O'Brien,  In the Lake of the Woods

Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?
—Phillip Roth,  Portnoy's Complaint

He had made it, he was here, in Heaven. Now what?
—John Updike, Bech: A Book

These necessarily rhetorical questions hang in the air for the reader, lingering beyond the novel. Different questions can have different effects of course with the Roth is a bit of humor that has been hinted at throughout the novel, while with the question Atwood poses functions  as a reminder of just how much we will never know. Sometimes, it is not that these works feel unfinished, but rather that these questions may be unanswerable by even the narrator, so, perhaps at a loss for what to do next, they have opened up the floor, as it were, to see if anyone else has any ideas. Sometimes, a question can simply haunt you with its lack of closure. This open-endedness can be both refreshing and frustrating for the reader, perhaps depending on whether they feel qualified to answer such questions, laden with import and meaning as they seem to be.

Philosophical Statements

Many authors try to take a broader view of things as they wrap up their stories, like the ever-widening camera shot at the end of a movie. Often sobering, like the writer who sees the end of the story as the end of the world in miniature; often reflective, like those making grander statements above, the author who ends his novel  this way  is speaking  directly to the reader, and not necessarily from a position of strength like the questioners above. Given one last opportunity to say what they want to say, these authors turn philosophical, as if the best chance they have of getting the reader to  remember something  about the novel is if it's contained in a pithy little quip, somewhat disconnected from the rest of the work.

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

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

The key to the treasure is the treasure.
—John Barth, Chimera

You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.
—Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you will never feel.
—Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

These last lines are easily divorced from everything that has come before, and, as in the case of the Beckett quote, can act as contextless shorthand for a writer's entire body of work. But a novel, let  alone an entire writer's output, can't be summed up in a last line, no matter how much it was slaved over or how eminently quoteable it is. Perhaps last lines are so memorable because they are so final, even if the book ends with a question or in the middle of things. The last line means the story is over, and nobody likes it when the story ends.

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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