By Karen Wills
This morning I read another list of memorable opening lines in literature. For one example, Melville’s first words in Moby Dick made the list with the famous, “Call me Ishmael.”
But shouldn’t there also be a list of novelists’ great last sentences? And if such a list could be compiled, what would make the lines memorable? I immediately think of Norman MacLean’s brief conclusion in A River Runs through It, “I am haunted by waters.” The words are simple, elegant, and strongly connotative. They resonate as good poetry does, and they suit and conclude the story of a brother lost.
Another fine last sentence ends March by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks won a Pulitzer for her story of what happens to the father of Little Women’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and the husband of their mother, Marmee, when he volunteers to serve as a Union Army chaplain in the Civil War. By the novel’s end, he’s been seared, scarred, and sickened by the carnage of war and the loss of loved ones. On his first night home, grief for those he’s lost, mostly freed blacks, nearly overwhelms him. But at twilight his wife enters the room where he sits reunited with his daughters. Marmee does the peaceful domestic act of lighting a lamp. Brooks ends her novel with the words, “For an instant, everything was bathed in radiance.” Whatever the future may hold, with this elemental imagery there is the arrival of healing and redemption. And there is the strongly connotative “radiance.”
Finally, let’s look at the late Susan Vreeland’s, The Forest Lover. It’s a novel based on the life of the artist, Emily Carr, an intensely creative painter who dared to venture into the turn of the century Canadian wilderness to find her subjects. She showed absolute courage in her life and originality in her stunning art. The last line reads, “She would drink the forest liquids and drench herself in possibility.” Don’t Vreeland’s words epitomize a brave woman in love with creativity? The image has mystery. The word “drench” suggests energy or passion. The sentence holds such promise.
These are my favorite lingering lines. What are yours?