Great literary endings, part 3

November 9, 2010 • 6:10 am

This won’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve read the book, but it’s a good one: The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, a tale of polymorphously perverse expats in postwar Spain and France.

Jake Barnes has received a wound in the war (WWI) that has apparently made him impotent, unable to sexually satisfy the randy Brett (Lady Brett Ashley), who has serial affairs with several people, including a bullfighter.  Jake clearly loves her, but there’s little hope for the relationship given his inability to sexually satisfy Brett.  At the end, a policeman symbolically calls a halt, pressing them up together, Jake is ironic, and the whole thing is ineffably poignant.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Curiously, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe were all discovered and edited by the same man, the great Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. (See A. Scott Berg’s biography, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius.)  Perkins had an unerring ear for literature.  He was also the editor for Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s book, The Yearling, which I beg you to read.

19 thoughts on “Great literary endings, part 3

  1. Shall we start a contest for the shortest and best fictional closing sentence or coherent line (I put the “or…” in there advisedly)?

    My entry:

    “yes I will Yes.”

    The only problem I see with that one is that the entire last chapter of the book – some 45 Random House pages – is all one closing sentence.

    1. Penguin offers a quiz for famous last words and famous last lines. Google “famous last words quiz penguin.”

      The contribution to great literary endings is

      “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric 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.”
      — George Eliot Middlemarch

      1. OK, I cringed to realize my error, nanoseconds after hitting “Post Comment…” Then decided to just wait for someone to call me out on it. But it looks like I’m gonna have to call myself out (you slackers!).

        That, of course, was not the last line in the book.

        I’ll think about it all tomorrow.

  2. I can be a bore about Joyce, I know, but the best opening line for me is that of ‘The Boarding House’ (Dubliners). “Mrs Mooney was a butcher’s daughter.” From that terse statement the whole story opens like a grim and ugly flower.

    1. For opening lines, I think my favorite ius from John Varley’s “Steel Beach”:

      “In five years the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

  3. My vote for best literary ending:

    “As if the air were a purgative, his valve opened. He breathed again, this time more deeply. The dull headache was lifting. He stared gratefully at the back of Myrna’s head, at the pigtail that swung innocently at his knee. Gratefully. How ironic, Ignatius thought. Taking the pigtail in one of his paws, he pressed it warmly to his wet moustache.”

      1. Its hard to beat this ending, from Harlan Ellison:

        I have no mouth. And I must scream.

        (from the story with the same name)

      2. Oops, yeah, forgot to name it…too hurried after pasting. I love the end because it’s such a surprising rebirth/beginning for a character who personified stasis.

  4. I just love Hemingway. Nobody else I know does. His stories are too macho in many ways that I can’t relate to at all, yet they are very tender and engaging. But ultimately I think it is his simple and direct writing style that sucks me in.

    I’m currently slogging my way through a compilation of Fitzgerald short stories, but nothing really measures up to Gatsby.

  5. Here here for the Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It is one of the funniest books I have ever read. An American classic.

  6. Agreed on TSOR. For the best short story of Hemingway–perhaps the best short story ever written, try “The Indian Camp.” Where themes of prejudice, life, death and the human condition are all examined in a few, short pages.

  7. The only thing I have to say about this is that Hemmingway lacked imagination.

    Just because Jake could not be satisfied, that does not preclude him from satisfying Brett in bed.

    There’s more than one way to skin a cat. With or without a baton.

    1. I think the preoccupation of TSAR with impotency reflects Hemingway’s machismo more than his interest, if he had any, in satisfying his partner.

Leave a Reply