The Last Shall Be FirstPrint
By David Lehman
November 25, 2014
We love last lines. The endings of favorite novels enter the mind and lodge there. Scott Fitzgerald’s majestic conclusion of The Great Gatsby is a favorite: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Hemingway concludes The Sun Also Rises with a bitterly ironic line of dialogue enlivened by an unusual choice of adjective: “‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” The terseness at the end of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is no less memorable: “For there she was.”
For their full impact, the great endings depend on the narratives that precede them. But a surprising number will be seen to have a meaning and a charm even when removed from their context. This is true of several of the lines I’ve quoted, and others spring to mind. When Dostoevsky brings Crime and Punishment to its finish, he leaves the door open for subsequent developments. He dangles the possibility of his hero’s redemption, then says matter-of-factly: “That might be the subject of a new story—our present story is ended.” Herman Melville airs a similar sentiment but with an effect that is both eerie and menacing at the close of The Confidence Man: “Something further may follow from this Masquerade.”
The last line of Sholom Aleichem’s story “A Yom Kippur Scandal”—“Gone forever”—concludes its narrative beautifully while making this reader believe it could perform the same function admirably for a half dozen others.
Your task for next week is to write the last sentence of a nonexistent story—either a story that we can imagine or one that we would yearn to read strictly on the basis of your sentence. The winning entry may imply a specific narrative—or it may be so suggestive that readers will be inspired to supply the writing that culminates in the sentence.
It doesn’t have to be long—just unforgettable.
Deadline: Midnight, Sunday, November 30.
David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.
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