The 100 Best Last Lines from Novels

| 3/7/2008 9:59:24 AM

Tags: American Book Review, best last lines, Samuel Beckett, novels,

The American Book Review has made their list of the 100 best last lines from novels available online (pdf). The judges—a group of critics, reviewers, writers, and readers—picked their favorite closers from a list of some 400 nominees. Only last lines from novels, novellas, and short story collections that “unfold like a novel” were eligible.  

The most popular last lines generally came from widely acclaimed books. In an essay accompanying the list, which first appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 2008 issue of the nonprofit literary journal, James Phalen explains, “because the power and effect of these lines depend so much on what has preceded them, it makes sense that our judgments of those lines are influenced by our judgments of what has preceded them.”

Top honors go to Samuel Beckett in The Unnamable—the final 11 words of a nine-page sentence.

“…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Which last line do you think should have won? Post a comment below, or go chat in the Great Writing Salon.

Sarah Pumroy

7/12/2008 2:07:10 AM

It begins and ends with "boats against the current", but the list wasn't bad.

Steven Trull
3/27/2008 1:28:46 PM

Yay! Kathy Acker made the list! Blah blah blah about everybody else; Kathy Acker made the list! Does that rhyme? So what. I like, do you think you guys are hiring I am, like, totally broke. Whatever. (You have my email now give me a job.)

3/27/2008 9:33:39 AM

The endings to Thomas Bernhard's novels always leave me with a smile, but especially Concrete: "I drew the curtains in my room, writes Rudolf, took several sleeping tablets, and woke up twenty-six hours later in a state of extreme anxiety." and Yes: "Two days later, when I walked over to the totally abandoned, not yet half-finished and already dilapidated, house in the water-logged meadow, it occurred to me that on one of our walks in the larch-wood I had said to the Persian woman that so many young people nowadays killed themselves, and that the society in which those young people were compelled to exist was totally unable to understand why, and that, quite out of the blue and in fact in my tactless way, I had asked the Persian woman if she would kill herself one day. Upon which she only laughed and said Yes".

Bill Webb_4
3/19/2008 6:45:45 PM

I'd have put Gatsby first, but apart from that I'm good with the list. (I do wish I was able to control my mind and separate issues as Erik seems able to. It would make my meditation ever so much more efficient.)

3/19/2008 12:33:08 PM

My favorite: "But it was not Judgement Day, only morning, morning, excellent and fair." -- William Styron, Sophie's Choice

julie kate hanus
3/12/2008 9:43:32 AM

Phalen’s statement doesn’t undermine the project, it merely confesses the obvious: that no last line ever truly stands alone. Literally, of course, because the pages of text before it are a prerequisite to being the-last-line-of-a-novel. More figuratively, however, because of everything we ask of and hope for in endings: closure or relief, distress or delight—a delicious moment of final, breathtaking punctuation. That’s the very function of a last line—so I don’t see any problem acknowledging the impact of preceding narrative when we judge how a writer sets it to rest. (Besides which: I think they do stand alone in so much as they’re a pleasure to read, and the ABR must think so too, or they wouldn’t have dedicated two pages to reprinting them.)

Erik H
3/7/2008 11:07:02 AM

"[I]t makes sense that our judgments of those lines are influenced by our judgments of what has preceded them.” Then what's the point in having a best last lines list? Shouldn't they stand alone? This just seems like a 100 greatest novels list to me. !AƯĈ