The Top 10 Best Closing Lines Of Novels

Editor's Note: the following article not only contains the closing lines of ten great novels, but also delves into plots, climaxes, and endings. Though most of the books discussed were published many years ago, those who wish to be surprised be warned: here there be spoilers.


Nine months ago I published a column on the Top 10 Opening Lines of Novels, and I've spent many ensuing hours contemplating what makes a perfect closing line. It must be resolute yet ambiguous, thematically satisfying without ever spelling anything out for the reader. The last line must trust the reader, never pander to his or her intelligence. It must sound final but offer promise, somewhere between a period and an ellipses in tone. 

I tried to focus mainly on classic novels for this column so as not to spoil anything, but please speak up with your more current picks in the comments, so long as you mark them with a spoiler warning!

1. 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain

"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."

Why It Works:

This last line captures Huck in two sentences: he can't be civilized. He's been there before and it simply didn't take. Huckleberry Finn must be free! It also presents a bit of optimism in the (often too strict) love that Aunt Sally offers the boy, who has had very little in the way of love his entire life. It's a sardonic note on a happy ending, which is vintage Twain. 

Buy Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Amazon.com

 

2. 'Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street' by Herman Melville

"Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"

Why It Works:

Although Bartleby, the Scrivener is actually a short story, its last line is one of my favorites. Many people would list the last line of Melville's Moby Dick here, but I love the simplicity of Bartleby's closing words. Bartleby is procrastination manifested, a man who refuses to do a simple task because he too often preoccupies himself with bigger questions of life and the universe. He's a stand-in for Melville, surely, but also perhaps a stand-in for humanity itself. Bartleby lived a hard life, culminating in a heartwrenching turn in a dead letters office that caused him to simply give up. With those closing words, the narrator (Bartleby's employer) resigns himself to the absurd tragedy of Bartleby's life and, in turn, all of our lives. 

Buy Bartleby, the Scrivener - A Story of Wall-Street from Amazon.com

 

3. 'The Dark Tower' by Stephen King

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

Why It Works:

This is also on my list of best opening lines. As The Dark Tower series isn't quite old enough to warrant classic status, I'll try to avoid any spoilers here and simply say that the full turn King takes in his fantasy series is brave, poetic and beautiful. A quarter of a century passed between the two novels that include that line, and there is truly no other way King could have concluded his magnum opus.

Buy The Dark Tower (The Dark Tower, Book 7) from Amazon.com

 

4. 'Emma' by Jane Austen

"But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union."

Why It Works:

Jane Austen can write one hell of a happy ending, can't she? But never without those charming winks to the silliness of the societal expectations under which she wrote. The "deficiencies" she refers to are told from the perspective of the ceaselessly imperious Mrs. Elton, who complained of the small amount of white satin and lace: "a most pitiful business!" Romance and satire are never so beautifully married as in a Jane Austen novel.

Buy Emma (Dover Thrift Editions) from Amazon.com

 

5. 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus' by Mary Shelley

"He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance."

Why It Works:

Frankenstein is a dark fairy tale, a Gothic romance that was far ahead of its time in terms of its horror and science fiction components. The final line is momentous and melodic, sad yet beautiful. The death of Frankenstein's monster is sad, yet perhaps in death, that unhappy creature can finally find peace. 

Buy Frankenstein (Dover Thrift Editions) from Amazon.com

 

6. 'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell

“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Why It Works:

Scarlett's constant refrain of "Tomorrow is another day" speaks to the sheer stubbornness and blind optimism that helped this fierce creature not only survive but thrive through the Civil War, Reconstruction and countless deaths. She'll think of it tomorrow; everything will be fine later. Scarlett closes her eyes and barrels through life, and life bows to her will because it must. As I've said before, we don't need to see it to know that Scarlett will win Rhett back. Scarlett always gets what she wants, eventually. 

Buy Gone with the Wind, 75th Anniversary Edition from Amazon.com

 

7. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by J.K. Rowling

"The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well."

Why It Works:

I know many people didn't approve of the epilogue at the end of the final Harry Potter book, but I loved it because after all of the heartache and death and terror and devastation that Harry has suffered his entire life, he deserves a happy ending. We deserve to see it, and J.K. Rowling deserved to write it. The Harry Potter series delves into some tremendously dark issues for a children's series, so no one can accuse it of saccharine coating. Those final few pages were Rowling's right, and I feel lucky to glimpse into the future she's planned for her beloved characters. 

Buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) from Amazon.com

 

8. 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by George Orwell

"He loved Big Brother."

Why It Works:

This brief, powerful final sentence establishes the inevitability of Winston's life. He fought and loved and became truly free, but in the end it was all for nothing. His memories are not his own, his personality is stripped from him and he is one more rote cog in The Party's plan for Oceania. Winston has "won victory over himself" -- his self being the thing that has been vanquished. 

Buy Nineteen Eighty-Four, Centennial Edition from Amazon.com

 

9. 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to than I have ever known.”

Why It Works:

Sydney Carton spends much of the book as a wastrel-- brilliant but self-indulgent. He finally learns the true meaning of sacrifice as he offers his life in order to save that of the brave Charles Darnay, and he realizes that this sacrifice is the single best thing about him. In his final moments, he at last becomes worthy and he has no fear of death because his death means something. Dickens' words have been the symbol of self-sacrifice for centuries. It helps that they rhyme, too.

Buy A Tale of Two Cities (Dover Thrift Editions) from Amazon.com

 

10. 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

Why It Works:

Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff lived tumultuous, tragic lives. They never lived in harmony during their turbulent youth, but now, they truly rest in peace. Wuthering Heights is a heartbreaking story with no happy ending, but Emily wrote a tender, serene conclusion for her long-suffering characters.

Buy Wuthering Heights from Amazon.com


Now your turn! Speak up in the comments.

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Comments

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea September 7, 2012 - 2:33pm

I nominate the last line of "Slaughterhouse-Five"--"Poo-tee-weet?"

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley September 7, 2012 - 2:50pm

Always a good one! The first line of Slaughterhouse Five was actually in my opening lines list!

jacks_username's picture
jacks_username from Louisville, Kentucky is reading A Song Of Ice and Fire September 7, 2012 - 3:21pm

Maybe the closing line of Rules Of Attraction.

 

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. September 7, 2012 - 3:22pm

I've always loved the closings of Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby.

Dan Miller's picture
Dan Miller September 7, 2012 - 4:16pm

It's not a literary classic or anything, but the last line of Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris really threw me for a loop. I actually remember gasping aloud.

Robert Willett's picture
Robert Willett September 7, 2012 - 4:21pm

What about the last line of Elementary Particles? This book is dedicated to mankind.

Steve Bradley's picture
Steve Bradley from Dayton, OH is reading Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn September 7, 2012 - 4:33pm

I have the final line of The Great Gatsby tattooed on my forearm.

David De Vries's picture
David De Vries from Canada is reading Lost in the Funhouse - John Barth September 7, 2012 - 4:39pm

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.

Michael Darer's picture
Michael Darer September 7, 2012 - 4:41pm

What about the end of Camus' 'A Happy Death' ("And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds")?

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing September 7, 2012 - 4:58pm

I would post the sentence itself, but it's one of the best parts of Melancholy of Resistance.

Layers of Flavor

Dennis's picture
Admin
Dennis from Hollywood is reading The Bone Clocks September 7, 2012 - 6:10pm

@Michael Darer, one of my favorite all time books.  And I love that last line.  Thanks.

Brent Hillier's picture
Brent Hillier September 7, 2012 - 6:56pm

Florid with the inevitability of it all, Poe's ending to 'The Masque of the Red Death' always lingers on like the chiming of the clock...

'And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.'

 

Don Hamilton's picture
Don Hamilton September 7, 2012 - 7:46pm

Wow! You would make a great editor! Oh wait. You are!

John Connor's picture
John Connor September 7, 2012 - 10:51pm

The closing of Cloud Atlas is pretty great, and the perfect summation of that book:

" '& only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!' Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

Nicholas Ordinans's picture
Nicholas Ordinans September 8, 2012 - 1:03am

Jack Schaefer's classic novel of the Old West, 'Shane' ends thus:

'He was the man who rode into our little valley out of the
heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done
rode back whence he had come and he was Shane.'

Philip Hopkins's picture
Philip Hopkins from Knoxville, Tennessee September 8, 2012 - 4:33am

Call me wacky, but I've always liked the ending of Double Indemnity. It isn't exactly ringing prose, but in the context of the whole novel, it just feels right to me. 

"The moon"

Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading House of Leaves September 8, 2012 - 4:53am

In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Ivan Amaro's picture
Ivan Amaro September 8, 2012 - 2:30pm

I nominate the last line from One hundred years of Solitude, which in my opinion also has the best opening line.

"Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because lineages condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth."

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade September 9, 2012 - 12:30am

Old favorite, because this novelist has difficulties with endings:

"Darling," it said.   - Stephen King, Pet Sematary

 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tom Spanbauer's I LOVED YOU MORE September 9, 2012 - 10:46am

Would it be churlish of me to nominate jackie susann's immortal closing line of valley of the dolls?

"After all, it was new years eve."

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on September 9, 2012 - 7:24pm

I love the ending of 'The Dark Tower'. Everyone else I ever talk to about it says they hate it (probably because in the course of seven novels and thousands of pages they've come to feel that they somehow own the characters) but I think it's perfect. It almost redeems the slip in quality of the final three novels of the series.

 

I also agree with 'Slaughter-house Five' and 'Gatsby".

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea September 10, 2012 - 4:59pm

"The Dead" and "Gatsby," for sure.

emvan's picture
emvan September 11, 2012 - 3:13am

Use of fairly tale phrases department:

"Even the weather isn't as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were." John Crowley, Little, Big.

". . . from that day forward she lived happily ever after. Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in between." - Lucius Shepard, The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter.

 

Scott Davidson's picture
Scott Davidson September 25, 2012 - 4:39pm

All good choices, but I'm with Jane Wiseman. "The Dead" and "Gatsby," for sure.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 14, 2012 - 7:26pm

I'd love to add the ending of Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. I've returned to those final two pages again and again as I've tried to improve the endings of my own stories. The entire final segment is great, but the final lines are especially powerful:

Even after all the rushing around, where we've ended up is the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

And maybe knowing isn't the point.

Where we're standing now, in the ruins in the dark, what we build could be anything.

MeganeT's picture
MeganeT November 18, 2012 - 1:08pm

A couple of favourites of mine that haven't been mentioned are Stoker's Dracula:
   "And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and silence, he died, a gallant gentleman."

and Dante's Inferno:

   "We climbed, he going first and I behind,
until through some small aperture I saw
the lovely things the skies above us bear.
   Now we came out, and once more saw the stars."

Alex Ferguson's picture
Alex Ferguson January 8, 2014 - 5:03am

I know this is an old post, but I had to respond with my favourite novel closure of all time.

It comes from Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Bernard, one of the characters of the novel, is soliloquising about how he has now reached old age and is nearing the end of his life, but is unafraid of death. His lengthy monologue concludes with:

 

'...Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death"

The waves broke on the shore'

 

The final line being spoken by a third person omniscient narrator. 

I just found that ending to be incredibly powerful and chilling. The character welcomes death as the perpetual, indifferent motion of the waves continues on. These lines also happen to be engraved on Woolf's tombstone.

Jacob DeCoursey's picture
Jacob DeCoursey April 14, 2014 - 4:05pm

"He looked a long time." Ender's Game

The Great D-ray's picture
The Great D-ray May 1, 2014 - 7:19pm

where is the great gatsby it needs to be number 1:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." ugh <333