Columns > Published on September 7th, 2012

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Now your turn! Speak up in the comments.

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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