I received an interesting question from a reader lately: it’s all well and good to discuss the first pages of novels in How to Read Novels Like a Professor, but what about last pages? Don’t they also have something to tell us? Indeed they do. I skipped them because the book is mainly a guide to reading, and by the time an ending comes along, most of the reading has been achieved. First pages, on the other hand, provide a host of clues as to how to read the upcoming narrative from style and tone to point-of-view and, sometimes, setting. Plus, truth be told, first pages tell me something very important at the bookstore: whether I want to read the second page. A last one can’t do that.
So what can it do? The last page of a novel has one overriding task: to get us out of this mess as effectively and elegantly as can be managed. Really, that’s all that remains. Those characters who were to die are dead, those who were to marry are hitched, and those to be left in limbo are dutifully twisting in the wind. Now, the narrative says, get us out of here.
Think of the endings that really work. Think of Gatsby‘s green light and “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Think of Pip’s final line in Great Expectations, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” Or Jake Barnes’s terse rejoinder to Lady Brett’s claim that they could have had so much damn fun together, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Or the final line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” Each of them draws matters to a swift close, finds a pithy summation, and leaves readers with a sense that this moment is the last one available to this novel, that it is time to move out of this story. We may think that Pip merely exhibits a lack of vision or that Jake is trapped in his own ironic spiral, but there is no doubt that we are done. Garcia Marquez does them one better, having destroyed the entire clan and the town where they have lived and any prospects for further iterations of the family drama. Even a book as radically original as Joyce’s Ulysses must bring matters to an end that is emotionally or intellectually or artistically satisfying, “and his heart going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” The preceding seven hundred pages are famously difficult, but we can all understand what Molly Bloom is saying here.
Do all endings satisfy like that? Of course not. Most books never achieve the standing of the great ones, however much they try. But most do try. They do aspire to be, if not great, at least good. And they all struggle with getting themselves started and then, some hundreds of pages later, getting themselves finished. How they achieve either of those is what I think about. I think about beginnings and endings when I read novels..
Most of all, because he says most of all, I think of Jack Kerouac, who leads us out of On the Road not with action or speech but with memory and reflection, “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” After a book full of frenetic to-ing and fro-ing, Sal Paradise, the narrator, finds a still point of the turning world, bringing us gently to rest. Really, what more can we hope for?