April 26th, 2011 / 6:07 am

Last Sentences

Last sentences are more difficult to evaluate absent context than first sentences, because first sentences are a handshake, a promise, an invitation, an opening. They are establishers of context. They mean in conversation with what follows them, but not only in conversation with what follows them. Last sentences mean only in conversation with what precedes them. Still, I think it is (or I hope it will be) a useful exercise to look at some last sentences absent context, and see what’s there. I plan to post about this matter again, and at greater length, but for now I want to just offer a selection of last sentences for your edification and mine:

“The widow begs you, therefore, if you ever pass through our village, to be good enough to spend the night in her house as her guest, and when you leave in the morning, to take the santuri with you.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

“These spirits, they’d left her for good the morning that the news was broadcast on the radio that her brother had set his body on fire in the prison yard at dawn, leaving behind no corpse to bury, no trace of himself at all.” – Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker

“He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?” – John Updike, Rabbit Redux

“He opens his mouth again and does one better.” – Erin McGraw, The Good Life

“Now everybody–” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“Ana said, ‘Perhaps it was not my life either.'” – V.S. Naipaul, Half a Life

“Missed you so much, thought about you every day.” – A.M. Homes, The End of Alice

“Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, ‘Help! Help!'” – Tayib Saleh, Season of Migration to the North

“The rooks come down to scrabble in the grass as every evening at this time they do, her companions while she watches the fading of the day.” – William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault

“He is sitting there cross-legged in front of the wall, and slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames.” – Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country

“On the last day I swam in the Nile–overhand–and they drove me to the airport, where I kissed Geneva–and the Cabots–goodbye.” – John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever

“There was no call to make such a fuss about it.” – Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe

“I say those words.” – Todd Grimson, Within Normal Limits

“Anyway, I prefer coffee, and not to be recalled as a tyrant.” – Amelia Gray, Museum of the Weird

“‘You dumb bastard,’ he said, his eyes blinking rapidly, ‘I love you.'” – Daniel Woodrell, Under the Bright Lights

“Look where your hands are. Now.” – Toni Morrison, Jazz

“Now the trumpets sound, the downhill charge, the slaughter, thousands, a short sharp ascent, a curve and before us the edge, we slide to it and across and before us the same long wide valley, and Jauja, a lake of golden light, but look, the glow is steady, not fire but cradled streetlights, we lower toward them, and a thousand miles away the pacazo wakes.” – Roy Kesey, Pacazo

“It unleashed its dreadful cry.” – Adam Novy, The Avian Gospels

“She stayed out there, waiting for me.” – Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps

“I’m willing to find out.” – Jesus Angel Garcia, badbadbad

“‘Instead of us fuckin’ up the story, let Scooter do it.'” – Elmore Leonard, Be Cool

“What did you see?” – Terese Svoboda, Pirate Talk or Mermalade

“I don’t know if it’ll be the same when I get back there but if it is then I’ll likely be home when I get home.” – Robert Lopez, Asunder

“‘Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!'” – Imre Kertesz, The Pathseeker

“Perhaps quite soon, in the new house she would be living in (alone) with David, she would be looking at the box, and there, in a shot on the News of Berlin, Madrid, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, she would see Ben, standing rather apart from the crowd, staring at the camera with his goblin eyes, or searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind.” – Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child

“You guys are amazing.” – Martin Wilson, What They Always Tell Us

“I watch my hands pretend they’re birds and then I take a sip of my coffee, and he takes a sip of his and we’re sort of pleased with ourselves, with what feels like a revelation but isn’t.” – Mary Miller, Big World

“Ja viens. Why not?” – Norman Rush, Mating

“Time ends each sentence with and.” – Craig Morgan Teicher, Cradle Book

“Though sometimes in my brain I go back to that afternoon, to relive it, sail up there again toward the acoustic panels, the basketball hoops, and the old oak clock, the careful harmonies set loose from our voices so pure and exact and light we wondered later, packing up to leave, how high and fast and far they had gone.” – Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

“As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights.” – Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

“She looked, tried to see what he was seeing, drew away from him to touch the wheel, reach for the key.” – Joy Williams, Breaking & Entering

“‘I’m here to help,’ I whisper, and the door swings open.” – George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

“She moved over the fields like a bird shadow, then, dropping, soaked dewlike into the soil so that she felt the wheat sprouting from her shoulders, the trees from her thighs while the early stars whispered her secret name.” – Annabel Thomas, The Phototropic Woman

“Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.” – Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams


  1. lauren

      I like that you examined this concept. Weird timing. I just finished the longest work I have ever written yesterday, and woke up today thinking about the last lines, hoping they are powerful and satisfying enough. I think it would be interesting to hear from writers about whether they labored over their last lines the way first lines are often maddening and erased constantly. I was surprised by how I had some images floating in my mind for a few days, and when it finally came to reaching that final scene, it almost felt like it wrote itself. Anyone else?

      Before I opened my eyes this morning (my favorite part of the day–mental writing & reviewing) I also thought about last lines from works that I love, and figured, if I can still remember their last lines years later, they must had done a good job. I always think of the last lines of Salinger & Fitzgerald, and honestly, Judy Blume’s *Just As Long As We’re Together*:

      “I broke off a sprig of forsythia and rang the bell.”

      I have always loved that, and it has stayed in my head for 20 years since I read it in elementary school…

      Thanks for posting this, Kyle…

  2. Osmon Steele

      Why is poetry excluded?

  3. deadgod

      The very last sentence is often too short a unit to make much sense as ‘the last words of this novel’ – even with the whole of the story in the reader’s – well, this reader’s – mind. Because the amplitude of the novel wave is so much longer than, say, that of a lyric poem that fits on two pages, tops (often one page: sonnet, villanelle), I’d consider making the ‘last words’ category paragraph-length – though not necessarily exactly one (1) grammatical paragraph.

      Here’s that famous last sentence of Gatsby:

      So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

      Doesn’t this jewel make more of its refractorily grievous sense with sentences directly before it (that talk of Gatsby and the dock and being so “close” he could reach out and touch it)?

      Here are the (also famous) last three paragraphs of The Sun Also Rises:

      “Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

      Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

      “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

      To me, it’s more misleading to sever the “last sentence” from this haiku-crowded haiku, which is Hemingway’s final unit of storytelling, than the taking of that sentence as the “last” of the story, which it is in an almost randomized way. Look, for example, at the comma after Brett’s “said” in contrast to the period after Jake’s “said” – that’s an ambiguous-but-definite sign of how those last last words are “said”.

      Or look at the (less famous) last sentence of As I Lay Dying:

      “Meet Mrs. Bundren,” he says.

      You get the malicious humor of the story’s finale – think of it as a close-parenthesis to the opening done by the novel’s title.

      But look at the whole final paragraph:

      “It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,” pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. “Meet Mrs. Bundren,” he says.

      – and it’s not just a mean joke (though it’s funny in a cruel way). – It’s a picture of real evil – the inbuilt and informing destroyer of a family.

  4. Michael Ichioka
  5. kb

      A few from nonfiction works that I see as heavily informative of each-other. Philosophy is narrative.

      “Theirs is the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on their refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods.” The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Henri Bergson

      “The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something–an object or ourselves–and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.” The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker

      “Rather, we freely acknowledge that what remains after the will has been totally suspended is, for all those who are still full of will, nothing; but, conversely, too, to those in whom the will has turned about and has denied itself, this world of ours, real as it is, with all its suns and galaxies, is — nothing.” The World as Will and Idea/Representation (Vorstellung), Arthur Schopenhauer

  6. kb

      My favorite last paragraph is from Suttree, and “Fly them.” is a fine last sentence.

  7. mimi

      So Much in those last lines of AILD

      thanks deaders

  8. Tim Horvath

      The Crying of Lot 49 is the only one I can think of off the top of my head that ends with its own title, successfully I might add.

  9. Kyle Minor


  10. Jonathan

      Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.

  11. A H Lumans

      And narrative, philosophy.

      “Then they all move on again.”

      Now the whole epilogue:

      “In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.”
      (Blood Meridian)

  12. kb

      I like Harold Bloom’s analysis of the epilogue but its, really,too reductive. The whole book (Blood Meridian) is a lost gospel, but its way beyond that, it has synthesized that. I hate it when things are reduced to allegory, really. Suttree and Outer Dark are my favorite McCarthy, but Blood Meridian may just be too much of a force, maybe when I’m older I’ll “get it” more.

  13. kb

      “All this, though some may consider it strange, mere fiction, is the truth.” The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner

      I don’t know how people take Gardner around here. He’s far far far far more complex than the banal mythology around him… the reductionist assessment of “On Moral Fiction” by people who have not actually read it, and so on… but the guy was a fucking God in my eyes, and was the perfect example of a guy who was SEARCHING throughout his work as a writer. He took it very, very seriously. I think that is lacking in some respects, sometimes, these days. Everyone should read Sunlight, probably my second favorite novel to Suttree, Grendel, and the lesser knowns like Freddys Book and The Wreckage of Agathon and, Gdammit, THE KING’S INDIAN. I think those last two are out of print.

      Also, my favorite Beckett is the “Stories” trilogy (which most take as a warm-up to the trilogy of novels [Molloy, Malone Dies, Unnameable]):

      “The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

      This is the last line from “The End”. The two stories beforehand are “The Expelled” and “The Calmative”. I have read these three, in succession, maybe twenty times. They put me somewhere… nice. I refuse to analyze them.

  14. kb

      Perfect example of an ending that is incomprehensible without the work as a whole and is the perfect ending for itself, from The Wreckage of Agathon: “Cocklebur. Ox.”

  15. kb

      (Sunlight being my fav novel all-times to McCarthy’s Suttree, I meant, in that post.)

  16. kb

      (Sunlight being my fav novel all-times to McCarthy’s Suttree, I meant, in that post.)

  17. kb

      PS, Megalike Philosophy is Narrative / Narrative is Philosophy. As long as you don’t take either as doctrine / dogma.

  18. Rob

      I think you got the last line from “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” wrong. I think that story ends “…feeling nothing but hate and hate, solid as stone.” One of my favorite endings ever. Unless you mean the whole collection, which would be weird to not mention the particular story. But I don’t have the book and can’t check.

  19. Kyle Minor

      It’s from the whole collection. That’s why it’s in italics, rather than in quotation marks (CivilWarLand the book, not the story. You know: books in italics, their constituent parts in quotation marks.) There are several last lines from last stories, which not only end the story, but also the book. Like the other last lines, I’ve offered them here without context. I’ll probably do more posts later where I offer context and do some thinking about the relationship between the last line and its context (although deadgod already got a headstart here in the comments section.)

  20. Kyle Minor

      Cool link, Michael. Thank you for posting it.

  21. Trey

      frickin love the ending to the sun also rises.

  22. Kyle Minor

      It’s a conspiracy against poets and people who like poetry, no doubt.

  23. deadgod

      mounted policeman . . . raised his baton . . . pressing Brett against me

      the haiku of the last three paragraphs tells, not the novel, but the Brett + Jake story

      when he was good, he was very, very good

  24. Ryan


  25. Marco
  26. Jonathan

      To this day, free access to the preserve is granted only to birds and to residents of Canterbridge Estates, through a gate whose lock combination is known to them, beneath a small ceramic sign with a picture of the pretty young dark-skinned girl after whom the preserve is named.

  27. shaun gannon

      last sentences i gave you my heart / but the very next day you gave it away

  28. deadgod

      that’s crazy talk


  29. Anonymous

      Dear Customers,
      Welcome to [url=http://www.asicsstores.com/]Asics Footwear Cheap Onitsuka Tiger Men-Women[/url] ! We professional offer Asics GEL Kinsei , Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66 , Onitsuka Tiger Ultimate 81 and so on. All shoes are FREE Shipping to Australia, USA, UK, Canada…Shoes of best quality, lowest price. You will not regret for buying from us!

  30. mimi

      I will be your father
      I will be your preacher
      I’ll be your daddy
      I will be the one who loves you
      till the end of time

  31. Anonymous
  32. A H Lumans

      I dig that title: “a lost gospel” — It definitely rings of biblical escapades and wholesale slaughter with the same un-inflected prose as, say, Judges 15:15:

      “Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he [Samson] grabbed it and struck down a
      thousand men.”

  33. Links: Filing Extension | Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes

      […] Minor considers the last sentences of novels and whether or not they can be representative of the whole work in the […]

  34. Derek

      John Irving says that he never starts writing a novel until he has the last line.