Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The End

Oh, that lovely moment in old movies when the lovers kiss, the hero rides off into the sunset, the villain breathes his last, and a child's sled fades into nothingness. Fin. Finis. The End. Connie Willis recently said "One of the reasons we love history and literature is because we get endings. We find out what happened: they got married; they died; they were able to vanquish EVIL. Sometimes we don't even really care how it works out, so long as we know how it works out."

This is why so few readers can bear to put a book down unfinished, no matter how much they're not enjoying it. This is why I skip ahead to the ending of books I don't like. I suspect this is why many
people refuse to read series fiction out of order. It messes with their sense of "the end."

Everyone can recite a few famous first lines of great books; "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." "Call me Ishmael." Do you remember last lines as clearly? The first line of a book is an embarkation, a jumping off point, where nothing is known and all is possible. The final sentences carry with them the entire world of the novel and its characters, and so the exact words may get a little lost. That's a shame, because I'm sure the author thought as long and hard about her final sentence as she did her opening lines.

My favorite ending of all time is, "Well, I'm back," he said. In a few words, J. R. R. Tolkien sums up one of literature's great sagas of good and evil, with a plain-spoken hobbit returning to his family and fireside. There is loss, and contentment, and the sense of a job well done at great cost: a lot of emotion to be found in five words.

Another fantastic closer, which struck fear and dread into my heart as a teenager, is from the short story The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke: Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were slowly going out. And I was stunned as a child that E. B. White could sum up a character's true importance in these few syllables: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

It brought back such wonderful memories when I started looking through my best-loved stories for their closing words. Sometimes I think that is all I want out of life; to rediscover that childish but pure satisfaction of a fantastic tale, well
told. I hope you'll also go back to a few of your favorite books and enjoy their last lines.

"Four o'clock! Come along - we'll just be in nice time for tea!"


Karen said...

This really makes me want to go back to my favorite books and read the last few sentences over again - shame on me for not remembering them!

Boudica, Queen of the Celtic Warriors said...

I thought the final sentences of Catcher in the Rye summed up the entire book:

It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. if you do, you start missing everybody.

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