The best endings in literature

November 7, 2010 • 3:13 pm

I’m sitting in the Miami airport, having successfully wrangled a plug from the PLUG HOGS who swarm around the electricity poles, greedily charging not just their phones or their computers, but every goddam appliance they have.

I want to highlight what I think are the best-written endings of novels written in English. I’ve chosen three, but today I’ll single out what I think is the best. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before: it’s the ending of The Dead by James Joyce (the last story in his 1914 collection Dubliners; you can read it online free here). It is what I consider the most beautiful bit of English prose ever written.  I could die happy if I could produce a few paragraphs like these.

The story: Gabriel and Gretta, a married couple in Dublin, go to his aunts’ annual Christmas party.  Gabriel thinks himself a swell, but he’s really sort of pathetic, pompous, and self-absorbed.  (This realization is pervasive in Dubliners.)  A song is sung at the party, which puts Gretta in mind of a boy who once sang that same song to her many years ago. The boy was named Michael Furey, and he loved Gretta when they were both young.  But their love was forbidden, and Michael died of tuberculosis after walking to Gretta’s house in the rain to confess his feelings.

When getting ready for bed in their hotel, Gretta breaks the story to Gabriel, and, hearing it, he has a famous Joycean epiphany, realizing that he hasn’t ever known true love and, pathetic creature that he is, will soon pass from this world.  Here’s the ending, starting with Gretta breaking down as she remembers Michael Furey:

“Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”

She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.

She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I can’t think of anything more beautiful than that.

I’ll post the other two next week.

54 thoughts on “The best endings in literature

  1. I had never thought of that passage, beautiful as it is. My own favorite Joyce ending is the end of Finnegans Wake as Anna turns from her family towards the sea where she will return to her father. It builds a cumulative emotional impact that was Joyce’s specialty, a grand bric-a-brac of commonplace things invested with incredible power.

  2. I am not a fan of Joyce. Heresy, I know.

    Why do you think that this is beautiful?

    You don’t have to mount a defense: beauty is subjective. But I would assert that any one of your pairs of boots is more beautiful.

    1. “The Dead” is a very long story (some say a novella) that builds to that ending. For me, quite a lot of its beauty stems from the relationship Joyce allows me to have with the character Gabriel. Looking at the passage on its own and without having experienced the whole 40 or so pages before it, diminishes it—as though the full force of its beauty were a mere matter of Joyce’s evocative prose and penchant for well-selected detail. Most of the beauty—again, for me, personally—is in the narrative Joyce has crafted that leads to that moment.

      1. Well put.

        While there is no doubt that this is some very well crafted prose, it is not the prose alone that does the job here. It is its perfect combination of the build up to it that does it.

        1. Agreed, and Faulkner was able to pull off the same feat, but in the middle of As I Lay Dying with a chapter consisting solely (not a pun): My mother is a fish.

          Vardaman Bundren the youngest child instills in those five words the most abject poignancy pulling both the beginning and ending of the novel together in the friggin’ middle–a sense of both deja vu and foretelling of the future is clinched by this marvelously innovative style. Leaves you spinning in space.

          Both Joyce and Faulkner made the characters live to the extent that the reader felt that they themselves owned parts of the characters, that their traits were as familiar to the reader as their own toes or noses or hearts.

        2. I also remember reading The Dead, and I remember reading the first 38 of 40 or so pages of a nice, not so very dramatic story, wondering why it was regarded so highly … and then being hit by the ending like a brick. As Eli and Andy wrote, the ending, beautiful on its own, requires the rest of the story for its impact.

  3. I’ve never commented here before, though I’ve been a reader for some time.

    This is my all-time favorite ending as well. Many others, I think, feel the same. It’s so interesting to me that it has such an intense effect on people. I can understand why others wouldn’t be affected by it had they not read all that led up to it. It may even take the whole book, with all the other stories before it to have the impact that it had on me, but oh boy. That last paragraph – those words in that order – work some undefinable magic. There’s an alchemy to fiction…

  4. For the best written beginning, I nominate Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned

    In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone
    since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at
    least, descended upon him. Irony was the final polish of the shoe, the
    ultimate dab of the clothes-brush, a sort of intellectual “There!”–yet
    at the brink of this story he has as yet gone no further than the
    conscious stage. As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he
    is not without honor and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness
    glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these
    occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself
    rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted
    to his environment, and somewhat more significant than any one else
    he knows.

      1. We’ll get to Fitzgerald later! I still think the dinner party scene in Tender is the Night, when it almost seems as if the table is levitating, is one of Fitzgerald’s finest moments.

    1. Best opening for me will always be Lolita.

      Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

      She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

      Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

      Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

      1. I have other candidates (The Recognitions, Nightwood, Gravity’s Rainbow (which has a pretty good closing too – the rest of the novel a parenthesis between these two passages)) but Lolita is the one to drool over. H.H. funny sort of name huh?

        1. I beg your pardon.

          Gravity’s Rainbow is my candidate for worst book in the English language, which would be bad enough. But to hear and read otherwise reasonable people extol its (non) virtues is not to be tolerated.

          Leaving quietly . . .

          1. I cannot but commend the collected works of Barbara Cartland to you.

            However – you force my hand – I propose the ending of that worst book for this little excercise:

            The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-on! Start-the-sho-w! Come-on! Start-the-show! The screen is a dim page spread before us, white and silent. The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out. It was difficult even for us, old fans who’ve always been at the movies (haven’t we?) to tell which before the darkness swept in. The last image was too immediate for any eye to register. It may have been a human figure, dreaming of an early evening in each great capital luminous enough to tell him he will never die, coming outside to wish on the first star. But it was not a star, it was falling, a bright angel of death. And in the darkening and awful expanse of screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see … it is now a closeup of the face, a face we all know—
            And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.
            There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs … or, if song must find you, here’s one They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten and out of print, sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:
            There is a Hand to turn the rime,
            Though thy Glass today be run,
            Till the Light that hath brought the Towers low
            Find the last poor Pret’rite one . . .
            Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,
            All through our crippl’d Zone,
            With a face on ev’ry mountainside,
            And a Soul in ev’ry stone. …
            Now everybody—

            1. Most grateful for the recommendation. I shall take up the works of Ms. Cartland after I complete Dr. Coyne’s book.

  5. It reminds me of “The End of the Golden Weather” by Bruce Mason, an iconic New Zealand play, performed as a monologue by Mason up and down the country, though it also can have a large cast, and has been filmed. Another change of season as metaphor for end of innocence.

    I stnad by the porch. The broom is almost bare of flowers,
    and, as I watch, a jaundiced bloom flutters off the
    bush, and sustained by the light breeze,
    charts a hazy course before coming
    to rest beside me. I pick it up
    and somehow I know, as I
    finger the jaded
    petals, that
    summer is
    at an

    [my attempt to shape this with HTML probably won’t come off.]

  6. I agree with you completely, Jerry. That last paragraph, in the right mood, no matter how many times I’ve read it, makes me feel swoonish. But a reader really ought to have read the whole story to open himself to the full effect. “The Dead” is regularly listed among the ten best short stories written in English–in large part, I think, because of its ending.

    I regularly assign “The Dead” to my college creative writing workshops, although it’s not part of the boilerplate bibliography, just for those few students who will find themselves exalted by that exquisite epiphany.

    When the great director, John Huston, was making his cinematic version of the story (which stars his daughter, Angelica), he was literally on his death bed. He was not on the set, but directing by video feed from another room. His regard for that last paragraph was so powerful that he includes at all, in voice-over, and it’s as moving on the screen as it is on the page.

  7. My favorite Joyce, too. And I’m intimidated by his style of literature, to tell you the truth. I will probably never read Ulysses as it is way too impenetrable for me. The Dead is a favorite — the main reason Dubliners is still a part of my cherished books.

    One of the interesting themes to look out for is the various ways all the living characters are really “dead” in one way or another. From fear… from envy… from sucking up to the rich. The dead guy is the character that is really the most alive, even in her memory.

  8. For the most beautiful bit of English prose ever written, though…I would nominate something from Sir Thomas Browne, or from Keats’s letters, or from Thoreau. (The first two, it occurs to me, are equally death-haunted.)

    1. As Andy points out, the painful, lyrical beauty in the last few paragraphs of the Joyce short story is prepared for–is constructed upon–the long narrative’s low-key but poignant development, so it’s really the emotional culmination of a complex portrait of relationships in time. For that reason, as lyrical prose fiction, it doesn’t compare to epistolary prose, however beautifully crafted.

    2. Sorry, Ophelia–that won’t do. You have to post it (so long as it ain’t too long).

      Some good Keats:

      “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass” from “St. Agnes’ Eve”

  9. And an underrated poet, American Sidney Lanier, wrote The Symphony, which (this is from memory) ended:

    “O’er the modern waste a dove hath whirred, music is love in search of a word.”

    Have you heard a better definition of music?

  10. The solution to plug hogs-google Belkin mini surge protector.

    It holds 3 120V plugs and 2 usb cables. I have yet to meet a plug hog at an airport who wouldn’t let me plug it in and both use it-just don’t forget and leave it.

    I’ll save any literary comments until you finish the series.

  11. Not really a novel, I know, and perhaps unsuitable for this blog, but surely one of the greatest endings of a work of literature in the English language is that of Paradise Lost. Like the ending of The Dead, it is remarkable for its precision, its beautiful shifts of focus, some subtle, some dramatic;and of course, like the ending of The Dead, a considerable part of its force derives from what the reader has been through in order to reach this point. I think it is also remarkable for its mood: a great sadness that is mingled with a moral toughness that is going to bloody well survive and endure (those selfish genes!), come what may, as well as with a sense of adventurous excitement. (The first ‘HE’ refers to the archangel Michael, who has been informing Adam of what is in store for humanity.)

    He ended, and they both descend the Hill;
    Descended, ADAM to the Bowre where EVE
    Lay sleeping ran before, but found her wak’t;
    And thus with words not sad she him receav’d.

    Whence thou returnst, & whither wentst, I know;
    For God is also in sleep, and Dreams advise,
    Which he hath sent propitious, some great good
    Presaging, since with sorrow and hearts distress
    VVearied I fell asleep: but now lead on;
    In mee is no delay; with thee to goe,
    Is to stay here; without thee here to stay,
    Is to go hence unwilling; thou to mee
    Art all things under Heav’n, all places thou,
    VVho for my wilful crime art banisht hence.
    This further consolation yet secure
    I carry hence; though all by mee is lost,
    Such favour I unworthie am voutsaft,
    By mee the Promis’d Seed shall all restore.

    So spake our Mother EVE, and ADAM heard
    VVell pleas’d, but answer’d not; for now too nigh
    Th’ Archangel stood, and from the other Hill
    To thir fixt Station, all in bright array
    The Cherubim descended; on the ground
    Gliding meteorous, as Ev’ning Mist
    Ris’n from a River o’re the marish glides,
    And gathers ground fast at the Labourers heel
    Homeward returning. High in Front advanc’t,
    The brandisht Sword of God before them blaz’d
    Fierce as a Comet; which with torrid heat,
    And vapour as the LIBYAN Air adust,
    Began to parch that temperate Clime; whereat
    In either hand the hastning Angel caught
    Our lingring Parents, and to th’ Eastern Gate
    Let them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
    To the subjected Plaine; then disappeer’d.
    They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
    Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
    Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
    With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
    Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
    The World was all before them, where to choose
    Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
    They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
    Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

  12. I’m sure you’re all right, that the ending quoted in the OP is even more intense if you’ve read the whole story, but I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes at work early in the morning.
    I’ll have to blame the first frost that I’ve just bicycled through on this bright November morning. Sniff.

  13. My favourite ending is that of Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth” (my second favourite novel, I prefer the ‘sequel’ “World Without End”:

    “Philip stepped forward to whip the king. He was glad he had lived to see this. After today, he thought, the world will never be quite the same.”

    The novel deals with the building of a cathedral in medieval England and culminates with the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

    Don’t be put off by the subject matter-it’s a very good read. Ken Follett is also an atheist.

    1. Although I liked TPOTE, I have always thought that the ending felt rather tacked-on. Follett himself mentioned that he looked for an ending for a long time. (In contrast, Isaac Asimov said he starts with the beginning and the end, then fills in the middle.) The ending of WWE, on the other hand, is good and seems natural.

  14. I first read The Dead probably 30 years ago. I remember the impact of the ending, and remember remembering it many times. As others have said, it is even better with the build-up.

  15. It’s been since college since I’ve read The Dead–but just re-reading the last sentence now still makes me shiver all over. I think I have to agree with Jerry–even though it makes me feel a little disloyal, since it’s Austen’s novels that I have nearly committed to memory:))

  16. There is an interesting conversation online between Ian McKewan and Steven Pinker about ‘The Dead’. Its split into several parts on youtube with the part about The Dead being mainly in the 3rd section.(im on my iphone so Im having difficulty posting a direct link)
    McKewan obviously loves the story but I cant quite figure out if Pinker has read it or not!

  17. I can never think of compass bearings without thinking of the brilliantly chilling ending to Brave New World.

    Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. …

  18. I know you said literature, but surely Darwin’s end to On the Origin counts as literature – I find it very moving & I am a cold-hearted bastard –

    It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

  19. I watched Creation last night, the BBC film about Charles Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species.

    It was … OK. It’s a good movie, such as it is. Paul Bettany (once again) deserves an award of some kind at least for his efforts.

    The movie is not an autobiography, touches only briefly on the voyage of the Beagle, and has little on his interactions with other scientists or naturalists aside from the well-played Hooker and Huxley.

    The movie is mainly a hand-wringer about his conflict with his wife about her belief and his non-belief. However it leaves one with the impression that Darwin had a serious soft-spot for religion, which I think wasn’t the case, at least by the time of OTOOS. It also dwells intensely on his feelings for and feelings of loss over his daughter Annie.

    It’s pretty good as far as it goes; but dwelling so hard on his conflict over religion, his waiting to write The Origin and the death of Annie make it a very slender slice of his life. Interesting but narrow and perhaps a bit over the top.

    I expected more breadth, more science, more other scientists, and rounder portrait of Darwin.

    3, maybe 3.5, stars out of 5.

  20. Invisible Cities
    And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

    Seems very relevant to the people on and purpose of this blog, and other blogs in the same field.

    Seek and learn to recognise who and what are not inferno.

  21. Bravo for celebrating the ending of “The Dead”. However, did you consider the much less celebrated first line:
    “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”?
    Now this might not seem in any way beautiful or profound but in fact in its throwaway mundanity it is a key to reading the whole story: “The Dead” is not to be taken literally, but rather as a metaphor for the way in which departed souls have monopolised Irish history. That the story, so apparently realistic, can acheive such depths of pathos, culminating in the beautiful description of the obliteration of all by the white snowfall of death, and the final reiteration of the title, is moving indeed.

  22. In his book Confessions of a Conjuror, Derren Brown writes about a childhood friend who pioneered an idiosyncratic literary device.

    Without fail, he’d cast himself as the protagonist, work up the plot into a frenzy that could not conceivably be resolved then end with:

    “And then I woke up. And then I died.”

  23. To me, one of the best endings ever in Elglish literature is that of “Animal Farm”:

    “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question,
    now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside
    looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again;
    but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  24. Just about a few comments people have specifically made about “The Dead”‘s ending being unable to exist without the story the builds up to it: it stands true, but as far as I understand endings will – in most cases, anyhow – be bound to be tied up to the whole body of work. It is just like saying that the ending of ‘1984’ is gorgeous without having read any other bits of the novel itself: it simply wouldn’t make sense.

    The Dead IS a terrific short story/novella, and certainly one of the most magnificently written pieces of existing in the English language. There is an universal applicability of the concepts proposed by Joyce, but I think it is of the utmost relevance to contextualise it with its contemporary settings, and what kind of reaction ‘The Dead’ itself presented against a ‘liminal pre-modern Ireland’. It is not a masterpiece by coincidence.

  25. this will alwyas be the best for me:
    “To get back up to the shining world from there
    My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

    And Following its path, we took no care
    To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,
    through a round aperture I saw appear

    Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
    Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

    Canto XXXIV

    — Dante (Inferno)

    call me pedestrian, call me unread. i care not. this is the most beautiful line in poetry to me.

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