Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Last Lines of the 19th Century

"Really, madam," said I, "you must be aware that every volume of a narrative turns less and less interesting as the author draws to a conclusion,--just like your tea, which, though excellent hyson, is necessarily weaker and more insipid in the last cup. Now, as I think the one is by no means improved by the luscious lump of half-dissolved sugar usually found at the bottom of it, so I am of opinion that a history, growing already vapid, is but dully crutched up by a detail of circumstances which every reader must have anticipated, even though the author exhaust on them every flowery epithet in the language."

This is from the last page, although not quite the last lines, of Sir Walter Scott's The Tale of Old Mortality (1816), his best novel that I've read, where Scott has tea with a woman who insists on asking what happens not only to the hero and heroine of the novel (do they marry?) but about everyone, down to the comic relief. The Incurable Logophile recently bemoaned the epilogue of Ann Patchett's opera fantasy Bel Canto, and wondered why authors still bother wrapping everything up at the risk of the energy and emotional impact of their actual ending.

The Scott quote shows that it's an old problem. This is only Scott's fourth novel, and he's already sick of it. Richardson set this terrible precedent, ending Clarissa with an epilogue worthy of the novel's bulk, punishing and rewarding almost every character mentioned in the entire 1500 pages.

In a fair fight, there aren't going to be as many great last lines in older novels as in more recent ones (just as the last lines of short stories are in general punchier than those of novels). The compressed attention to style isn't there, the attention to every detail. Instead, we get an account of a marriage, or a flowery farewell to the reader. The exceptions are too rare. This is the world of, as James said, "loose baggy monsters".

The list I discussed yesterday includes some first rate exceptions, whether poetic like Frankenstein ("He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.") or rhetorically magnificent like A Tale of Two Cities ("‘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.’"). But is even the end of Emma that special ("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.")? Or the end of Middlemarch, too dreary to duplicate here, and certainly not the evidence to present to someone convinced that Eliot is an essayist disguised as a novelist.

Some first-rate 18th and 19th century last lines, missed by the list:

“I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the Society of an English Yahoo by any Means not insupportable; and therefore I here intreat those who have any Tincture of this absurd Vice, that they will not presume to appear in my Sight.” Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

“The old man and his sons followed the body to the grave; Albert was unable to. Lotte’s life was in danger. Workmen carried the coffin. No clergyman attended.” The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“When they tried to detach this skeleton from the one it embraced, it crumbled to dust.” Notre Dame of Paris, Victor Hugo. Really, what an ending!

“He has just received the Legion of Honor”. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

“While she was saying this, Rollo woke up and slowly wagged his head to and fro, while Briest said calmly: ‘Ah, Luise, don’t go on... that is too big a subject’.” Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane


  1. I choose a few favorites from the DPF:
    "Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is." Russell Banks (whom I've never read but think I must now).

    Also love this one: That’s it. The sun in the evening. The moon at dawn. The still voice. –John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)

    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. –Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Matthew Ward)

  2. I know what you mean about the Russell Banks quote. These modernist writers put a lot of work into their final lines.

  3. But the ending of Middlemarch is lovely--wistful, poetic, philosophical, and (perhaps most important) just right, formally and thematically, for concluding what has gone before:

    "Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unheroic acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

    It helps, perhaps, to imagine it in the voice of Judi Dench, who provides the voice-overs in the BBC adaptation.

  4. What passage would not be improved by imagining it in the voice of Judi Dench? For example, try out that John Hawkes ending in verbivore's comment above - fantastic.

    As for Eliot, I gladly defer. She is at the top of my David Lodge-style Humiliation list, with "The Scarlet Letter", "Jane Eyre", "Walden", and "Green Henry".

  5. Now that I'm looking, I see great endings everywhere...here's another one, also 19thC:

    "They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar."

    (It's the last sentence of Dickens's Little Dorrit.)

    OK, I'll stop now.

  6. It's great idea, isn't it - I was tearing through my shelves, looking at everything. I barely even addressed the short stories - Welty, Chekhov, Grace Paley. That Dickens quote is a good one, too.

  7. Don't say you've never read Jane Eyre? O-Oh,I feel faintish.

  8. I rally temporarily to offer this last bit from a notable novel, Sam Savages Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Life, which I last read was creating excitement in Spain.

    I turned around once in my nest. I unfolded the wad, unfolding it all the way out till it was once more a piece from a page, a page from a book, a book from a man. I unfolded it all the way out and I read: “But I’m loothing them that’s here and all I lothe. Loonely in me loneness. For all their faults. I am passing out. O bitter ending! They’ll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary.” I stared at the words and they did not swim or blur. Rats have no tears. Dry and cold was the world and beautiful the words. Words of good-bye and farewell, farewell and so long, from the little one and the Big One. I folded the passage up again and I ate it.

  9. Humiliatin', ain't it? Well, not really. I'll get to it soon.

    As for the end of that book about the readin' rat, it's seems so self-contained as to the make the novel itself unnecessary.

    Savage seems to have literalized the books-as-food metaphor that I use all the time (chewing through a book, etc). I looked up your post on the book, and you convinced me to AITML.