Endings, as we all know, are important. An entire novel can be ruined by a disappointing ending, but by the same token, an entire novel can be made by a wonderful one. We’ve already given you a rundown of our favorite opening lines in literature, but since every beginning needs an ending (and you’d be surprised at how many works with awesome first lines also have awesome last lines – or perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised), we feel compelled to treat you to a list of our favorite last lines as well. Click through for 20 of our favorite endings from our bookshelf of classic and contemporary greats, and let us know your own picks for best last lines in the comments.
1. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Best pessimistic diagnosis of a resigned and wistful generation:
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
2. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” Flannery O’Connor (From The Complete Stories)
Most delicate ending to a delicate, harrowing story about the different kinds of humanity and grace:
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Best reason to go adventuring in Wonderland:
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
4. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Most dearly held last line for moody and secretive teenagers everywhere:
Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
5. The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace
Best way to end a novel in the middle of a sentence/best phantom use of a word when we all know what it is but maybe we don’t because it’s DFW so we’d better not make any assumptions:
“You can trust me,” R.V. said, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my
6. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
Best post-modern, self-referential ending to a post-modern, self-referential book about reading and writing:
And you say, “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.”
7. The Stranger, Albert Camus
Most last minute revelation for a previously utterly stubborn, unchanging character, finally accepting the facts of the universe in the face of his execution:
As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
8. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
Best wonderfully mangled last line from a wonderfully mangled novel:
“No got… C’lom Fliday”
9. 1984, George Orwell
Most chilling return to the status quo:
He loved Big Brother.
10. C, Tom McCarthy
Prettiest description of oblivion and both the interconnectedness and meaninglessness of worldly phenomena that also sounds something like a dehumanized version of the last line of The Great Gatsby:
The wake itself remains, etched out across the water’s surface; then it fades as well, although no one is there to see it go.
11. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” J.D. Salinger (From Nine Stories)
Most widely debated and surprising-yet-inevitable suicide-based ending ever:
Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.
12. “The Falls,” George Saunders (From Pastoralia)
Best description we’ve ever read of rationalizing one decision over and over as you make the other decision with your body:
They were frantic, calling out to him, but they were dead, as dead as the ancient dead, and he was alive, he was needed at home, it was a no-brainer, no one could possibly blame him for this one, and making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.
13. The Hundred Brothers, Donald Antrim
Best calm after the storm:
It is true that there is nothing like a blaze in the hearth to soothe the nerves and restore order to a house.
14. Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
Though we’re of the opinion that you could take any of Nabokov’s sentences at random and put them on any best-of list with no problems, this may be the best ending to an impressionistic memoir about perception, memory and the haziness of reality:
There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbor, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady’s bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s finnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture – Find What the Sailor Has Hidden – that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.
15. The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
Most Beckettian closing to a Beckett novel:
Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
16. Out, Ronald Sukenick
Most visually representative ending to a novel:
this way this way this way this way this way this way this
way out this
17. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Most grandiose and declarative/most often quoted by people who have no idea where it’s from:
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’
18. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
Make fun all you want, but after everything that Harry went through, this may be the most well-deserved last line we’ve ever read:
The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.
19. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Best beautiful sum-up of the novel you just read, both in tone and in meaning, and possibly the most well-loved last line of all time:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
20. “The School,” Donald Barthelme (From Sixty Stories)
This writer’s personal favorite. The most excellently crafted, strange, funny and ambiguous ending I have ever met:
They said, please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened. I said that they shouldn’t be frightened (although I am often frightened) and that there was value everywhere. Helen came and embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each other. The children were excited. The there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.