"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How important are first and last lines of books?

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, the last line

My 10/15/13 issue of Booklist arrived yesterday. (A little late, don't you think? But that is beside the point.) While perusing it, I found an article, "Carte Blanche: The End" by Michael Cart. In it Cart shined the spotlight on the last lines of a few famous children's and YA books. He asks, "Aren't the first and last the two most important lines of any book?" The first line should grab our attention, and the last, sums things up. Right? Cart also thinks that the last line should point to the future. Many of his highlighted books didn't fit the bill. It's like books should end on a up-note, leaving the reader hopeful, moving forward. May books don't do that. I frequently tell my students that my favorite books always end with a bit of ambiguity which allows me to think about the ending beyond the author's ending.

With these thoughts in mind I thought it would be fun to look at a few books that our school requires (or suggests) that students read.

First line(s)
Last line(s)
Pride and Prejudice/Austen
     It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.
     With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.
Scarlet Letter/Hawthorne
       A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.
It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so somber is it. And relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: -- “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”
To Kill a Mockingbird/Lee
     When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
     He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
Fahrenheit 451/Bradbury
     It is a pleasure to burn.
     Yes, thought Montage, that’s the one I’ll save for noon. For noon…
     When we reach the city.
Lord of the Flies/Golding
     The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
     The officer…turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.
The Great Gatsby/Fitzgerald      In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.      So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Their Eyes Were Watching God/Hurston
    Ships  at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
She pulled in her horizon like a great fish net…So much of life in its meshes. She called in her soul to come and see.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn/Twain
     You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
But I reckon 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.

Pride and Prejudice has one of the best, most recited first lines in literature. It sets up the whole novel. While the ending lines do sum everything up, they sure are bland in comparison. I sometimes forget, when waxing philosophical about how much I love the book, that it is still a difficult book to read for most people of this century.

And speaking of difficult to read, Scarlet Letter seems like it is even harder than P&P from start to finish. I had to look up what the inscription on the tombstone meant: “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.” (On a black background, the letter A, red.) Now I confess to be a fairly patient reader who is willing to look things up to enhance comprehension. But it is the rare student who is so patient. I pity the teacher who has to teach this text.

Harper Lee brings To Kill a Mockingbird around full circle, doesn't she? I never realized it until today that we learn about Jem's broken arm at the beginning and it is actually broken at the end. Fortunately for Jem,  Atticus Finch, his father and the hero of the story,  is with him. Brilliant.

Similarly brilliant are the opening and closing lines of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Neither of the lines are particularly  memorable but both are beautiful and evocative at the same time. The reader is left with a sense of hope and goodness looking toward the future. The first line hints at it and the last line tells us that all is well with her soul.

In Lord of the Flies we are relieved to learn that the boys are rescued, there will be an end to their nightmare that started when they arrived at the lagoon. With Gatsby we know that the tale we have read is being remembered from a past experience, and a haunting one at that.

I am tremendously fond of the opening line of Fahrenheit 451, "It is a pleasure to burn", but the last lines require more back reading to understand. Obviously the reader gets to the last lines by reading the text that came before it so they would know that the protagonist, Montage, carries with him, as he escapes, quotes from books. The last lines aren't my favorite, but the sentiment is so pointed. Where would we be without books? He is thinking about the future, even if that future isn't very far off. As with all school children everywhere, Montage is looking forward to noon.

My favorite closing lines on this list are provided for us by Mark Twain through his character Huck Finn. After all the adventures that Huck experiences he is ready to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest..." because, as he knows from experience, he doesn't want to sivilized [sic]. Talk about preparing our character for the future. Twain has set Huck on a new course and has all his readers imagining what kind of fun Huck will have in the territories, too.

Once, several years ago, my book club was in the habit of looking at the closing line of our book and comparing it to the first line. It was a fun and enlightening exercise. Maybe it is time to resurrect that activity.

Work cited:
Cart, Michael. "Carte Blanche: The End." Booklist 110, No. 4 (2013): 41. Print.


  1. That's a nice exercise. I don't think I usually pay all that much attention to the last line of the book. I pay attention to how the book closes, but I'm usually hurrying to finish- either for good reasons or for bad reasons, and I don't linger over what the author is trying to convey with that last sentence. But I'll try to think about it more in my next read!

    1. I found Cart's article very interesting for that point. I also think it amazing how unmarkable most last lines are.


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