Thursday, June 3, 2010

Famous Last Words

Yesterday was the last day of school for the 2009-2010 year.  The last day of school!  It seems as if it should be a day of celebrating and throwing off the yoke of tyranny, but this day has always had an odd effect on me.

The finality of the last day of school always causes me to be retrospective and wistful. There are final exams, then graduation, then people saying goodbye for the last time.  The school year is like a book that you want to hurry up and finish, but then when you get to the last line, you linger over it for a moment and wish it could go on just a little bit longer.

All of this has got me thinking about the last lines of some of my most beloved novels.  Below are the endings to five of my favorite books.  These are how the books end, so, if you haven't read them yet, then, um, spoiler alert.

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

I always emphasize this last line to my students.  It's on their test.  This one sentence sums up the chore of growing older, when you are moving forward and backward at the same time, yet seem to be getting nowhere.  My eleventh-graders are young to understand it, though, but why blame them for that?  I wish I was, too.

2. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

"'Meet Mrs. Bundren,' he says."

Not all books end with profound ruminations on the human condition; some of them have punchlines.  Not many books have funnier last lines than this (See also: Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.)

3. Sabbath's Theatre, by Philip Roth

"And he couldn't do it.  He could not  f---ing die.  How could he leave?  How could he go?  Everything he hated was here."

The biggest and baddest of all of Philip Roth's book, with an opening sentence that was just as memorable, Sabbath's Theatre took me four months to finish.  The last line, in which Sabbath realizes why he can't bring himself to commit suicide, just devastated me.  One of these days I'm going to re-read this one...but not yet.

4. Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike

"Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more...but enough.  Maybe.  Enough."

By the time you get to the end of Rabbit at Rest, you have spent 1568 pages and forty years with Harry Angstrom.  It's time for him to go.  You knew it had to come to this.  But the night I finished the Rabbit books (I read all four of them back-to-back-to-back-to-back), I had a dream that there were four more out there that I hadn't read.

5. The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud

"One or two waved at Yakov.  Some shouted his name."

The Fixer is a brutal and beautiful book, and it does not get the attention it deserves.  Like Yakov, the main character, it seems destined to be forgotten and neglected.  This book is about nothing if it not the invincibility of hope (that bird on the front cover is a clue to what's inside), and that last line resonates with you a long time after you put The Fixer down.

And one more!

6. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

"Don't ever tell anybody anything.  If you do, you start missing everybody."

Advice for bloggers everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile--and--we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN'S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest.