The Final Sentence
Detail from Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve, William Blake, 1808
by Ed Simon
Every novel is apocalyptic because every novel ends. Narrative is a strange thing, that little circumscribed universe bound between the covers of a book. Unlike life, a novel actually draws to a close. Regarding the former, that whole litany of grimacing philosophers from Epicurious to Seneca, Epictetus to Lucretius, claimed that either there was survival after death, or the very definition of extinction implied that it will be an event for which we’re not present. Either way, there isn’t the finality that there is when we finish a book. Principles of narratology are very different from the course of life; narratives are shaped by story and plot, by fabula and syuzhet. When reading for narrative, and analyzing the implications of why a story has been structured the way that it has, and how that structure alters the potential interpretations of a novel, or story, or epic, there are an arsenal of terms which exist to explain how form and shape delineate these little universes we call books. In anagnorisis we have the epiphany whereby our main characters discover something crucial to the narrative; in eucastrophe we have the moment whereby the protagonist is saved from what had seemed an inevitable tragedy; with peripeteia we have the more general shifting of events in any direction. My favorite is metalepsis, the proverbial “breaking of the fourth wall” whereby the author herself appears within a fictional narrative, that when it occurs in real life, we call theophany.
Such vocabulary is adept as explaining how all of the parts of story and plot fit together to construct a narrative, to create a universe. Easy to forget that they’re only applicable to our actual lives in the form of metaphor; there is no actual anagnorisis furthering your story towards its inevitable dénouement, there is only finding something out that you didn’t know before which may or may not be important; there is no eucastrophe, just events that happen one after the other ad infinitum. Russian formalist critics Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky divided narrative into the aforementioned fabula and syuzhet, the first being the literal chronological ordering of events and the later referring to the manner in which the author has organized them. Derrida writes that the “question-of-narrative covers, with a certain modesty, a demand for narrative, a violent putting-to-the-question, an instrument of torture working to wring out the narrative as if it were a terrible secret;” there is a desire to wrench the randomness of fabula into the divine design of syuzhet. But of course, when it comes to life there is no need to apply narrative theory to our experiences, there is no foreshadowing and no Deus ex machina is coming. We have no syuzhet, only fabula.
Inevitably we see signs of authorial intention in our own lives however, inevitable that the logic of narratology colors how we interpret our experience. We see coincidences as indicating future plot points, we read significance into the pace, rhythm, and order of events, we hear the scattered voice of consciousness as if it were a narrator – and of course we’re the main character. We all imagine ourselves to be characters in a narrative, attaching ourselves to whatever genre is dominant in the period which we live, so that perhaps the ancients saw themselves in the world of myth, as our early modern forebearers understood themselves to be in the pages of a novel, and we frequently imagine our lives with the logic of film. Who doesn’t envision their lives edited as if on celluloid, see the course of events as filtered through jump-cut, montage, and mise-en-scène? As you drive down a winding overlook, don’t you feel the camera following you? When your Spotify playlist is running, don’t you sometimes imagine that it’s a soundtrack? We’re not characters in a movie, of course, nor are we in a novel or story, save for one that is perhaps tremendously polyvocal and written by an Author who hides Her voice incredibly well. When we apply narratology to our lives, we call it providence; when we interpret time with it, that’s what we call teleology. But in reality, it’s all just one thing right after another.
Which is what makes the construction of a narrative, the creation of that little universe, not an incidental thing, but a profoundly sacred thing. It’s the circumscription of reality into this monad that we call literature that’s transcendent, that’s noumenal. If life is lacking meaning in the objective particulars, then we’ve been able to impose significance in the realm of invented worlds. In that ritual of creation, whereby authors have generated so many worlds with so many people in them, the first sentence of a narrative is often spoken of with a particular reverence, and for good reasons. But the Genesis for the moment of creation implicit in the ex nihilo of the first sentence must be read by the glow of the last sentence’s apocalypse, the final words of a narrative like the breaking of the seals or the blasting of Gabriel’s trumpet. So much depends on a first sentence, the portal into which a reader enters that new reality, but between it and the last page lays an entire kingdom, and we mustn’t obscure the importance of that window through which we leave. Between the first and the last sentence there is the very world, and in the later the intimations of millennium. A concluding line is an eschaton; it is an apocalypse.
I’d posit that a great last sentence is as if a poem; in fact, so is a great first sentence. All that is needed of a transcendent novel are those two parts, everything in between is implied already anyhow and can thus be ingested as pure candy. A perfect last sentence has implicit within it the power of incantatory poetics, it draws the entire creation to a close, like a bubble popping, or a candle being blown out, or Prospero letting the entire great globe itself disappear into gossamer nothingness. In a last sentence, you are deprived of knowing what is in the “after;” we can imagine, we can invent, we can extrapolate, but for the characters of the narrative, their God has deigned to draw upon their existence a veil. Such is the literal description as supplied by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, its closing page invoking that “Yes, they will trample me underfoot… reducing me to specks of voiceless dust… and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.” Every last sentence is finally, and with finality, about itself. Every last sentence is about where we choose to end; what we choose to leave out. Every sentence is about annihilation; it sustains itself on the sublime intimations of nothingness.
Foolhardy to attempt any general theory of last sentences, but there are certain themes, tropes, and dare I say it philosophies implicit within how a lot of writers choose to complete the theurgy which is writing a novel. As with Rushdie’s final sentence in Midnight’s Children, there are last words which function not just to draw the narrative itself to a logical (or open-ended) conclusion, but lines which serve to draw attention to the idea of finality itself. This is what Mary Shelley does in Frankenstein, depicting her monster as disappearing into the Arctic nothingness, for “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” Something so attractive in that nihilistic alliteration at the end, the sense of enveloping blackness erasing the monster as surely as closing Frankenstein draws his narrative to a finality.
Joseph Conrad does something similar in Heart of Darkness, with Marlowe discovering that the “offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the utmost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense blackness.” Those plosive consonants in the alliterative “barred by a black bank” do something not unlike what Shelley was doing, sounding nothing so much like the sputtering engine on a boat sailing down the Congo coming to a stop. Note how Conrad conflates both spatial and temporal endings, how easily the “ends of the earth” implies the “End of the Earth.” And in the same way that both the end of a novel (where all characters disappear, their invented stories subsumed back into that divine ether) and the end of our lives implies the same “immense blackness,” that thick nothingness from which no answers are forthcoming until we’re able to sail there ourselves.
Some of the most exemplary of last sentences gesture towards the finality of apocalypse by emphasizing how singular, detached, and endlessly regenerative each eternal second is. Emily Brontë, for example, ends Wuthering Heights with the apocalyptic intimations that both the end of a novel and death require, writing “I lingered round them, under the benign sky; watching the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; I listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in the quiet earth.” Brontë provides an instance of what I’ve called elsewhere the “crystalline moment,” that is that the final lines of Wuthering Heights provides access to that singularity which is the present moment, one which expresses a certain sublime infinitude and compels that kaon-like sense of what it would feel like to have an eternal perspective, as if you were God. All of the quiet details, the “moths fluttering,” the “soft wind breathing through the grass,” supplies that sense of timelessness which is hidden within every moment, but which only transcendent art can make accessible. Furthermore, Brontë’s sentence makes visible how static an end can be, where the “benign sky” is like an event-horizon you approach closer and closer towards, but never reaching – the same way that we can never truly experience our own deaths.
As different a writer from Brontë as could be imagined would be Jack Kerouac, there being little correspondence between the Regency and Beat literature. When it comes to final sentences however, On the Road does something not unlike Wuthering Heights in terms of distilling the calmness implicit within the final moment (while remembering that all sentences, and thus all literatures, are fundamentally concerned with the question of moment). On the last page of that novel, Kerouac has Sal Paradise ruminate in a run-on sentence composed in bop prosody and evocative of the expanse of the land itself, writing that “in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry,” for as the appropriately named Paradise does surmise “the evening star… [is] shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which… darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happy to anybody,” and so on, and so forth.
Despite the snark which holds that Kerouac was less an author than a typist, the last sentence of On the Road does something metaphysically similar to what Brontë does in Wuthering Heights. Does two similar things, in fact: the first is that Kerouac endows this final moment of On the Road with a certain enchanted significance where all things are glowing, and it does this by presenting a vivid portrayal of the crystalline moment. As an example of the crystalline moment, Kerouac’s final passage in the novel is recursive, memories sliding into this particular second and reflecting back upon each other. As Brontë gives us those details that accrue tiny shards of meaning into her moment – the moths and wind rustling the tall grasses – so too does Kerouac endow his description with the little details that, like paint being applied over and over to a canvas, build up a writerly texture. We have the dipping sun over polluted Jersey, which reminds him of the sparkling sky over an Iowa prairie. If constructing a precise crystalline moment is one manner in which Kerouac does something similar to Brontë, then another is the way in which the final sentence of the novel evokes the end (and thus the destruction) of the narrative in a similar manner, by calling upon the sublimity of nature. Wuthering Heights does this by dwelling amidst the charged luminescence of the English moors, but in many ways On the Road is among the last Romantic novels, and because it is American the nature which it luxuriates in is the grandiosity and enormity of the land itself (which is then mimicked in the uncontrolled syntax of Kerouac’s sentence).
If final sentences gesture towards extinction – of both the narrative and ultimately all sentient awareness – than the nothingness to which that sentence directs the reader depends on the type of novel that we’re reading. As Conrad indicated an inchoate darkness as falling like an infernal dusk upon his narrative, so do American novels, death obsessed as they are, focus on the land of America as surrogate for both death and God. Critic Leslie Fiedler wrote in Love and Death in the American Novel, which stands with D.H. Lawrence’s Classic Studies in American Literature as among the best books ever written about this land, that “our literature is a gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic, a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.” Nothing is more American than the novel precisely because it both ends, but paradoxically also indicates the infinitude that continues beyond the last page.
A novel, creation of a solitary genius we deign to call the Author, is the ultimate product of boot-strapping rugged individualism; the theophany of the writer into a creator god, where she alone decides when the universe is to end with the last page. America’s immensity has always been a convenient metaphorical locus for that, encompassing both the death of the novel’s characters as they cease to speak to us, but also our own deaths as well. In those dreams, a blanketed, undifferentiated, terrifying space of the American continent looms forth towards the dwindling west as representative of all that which we can never know after we’ve closed our eyes for the last time. Kerouac was anticipated by another “Great American Novel,” in the form of the closing sentence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that with its invocation of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” had a similarly westerly scope, and transposed the spatial into the temporal with “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Before Fitzgerald, Mark Twain did the exact same thing, marking the terrae incognita of America as a type of wilderness into which the reader and the narrative could not go, a paradise beyond the comprehension of words and so the world must finally end with the novel itself. His titular character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes leave of us with “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Then there are the books whose endings let loose the secret that they understand there is no true apocalypse, for to be on the other side of the end of the world would to still be in the world. After all, when we close books we’re still here, even if the characters aren’t anymore. These novels enact the commonsense understanding which we all intuit – that the completion of a book isn’t the end of anything; that even after the characters are silent their narration still rings in our head; that after the last page has been turned we can’t help but imagine time’s arrow still propelling the story forward, even while the naturally limited author, lacking in omnipotence, is mute on what has happened in that universe. In this way, no novel is actually apocalyptic, because what the narrative presents is not a universe itself, but a brief window into a world that we’re allowed to view for a little bit before we pass on. These final sentences imply not finality, but continuance. We see this in Margaret Mitchell’s novel of unrepentant Confederate schmaltz Gone With the Wind, when she writes “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
We also see it brilliantly in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a novel implies both continuation and completeness of a fictional universe when the last sentence “A lone a last a loved a long the” is completed in the first sentence which reads “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” But it’s Joyce’s countryman Samuel Becket who penned the most distilled and honest of final sentences, writing in The Unnamable “Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” By dwelling in both the ineffability and the inexplicability, as well as the indefinability and the impossibility of an end, Becket’s final sentence is the last line of all novels, and of all of our stories, as well.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.