Famous Last and First Words

The DiCaprio film adaptation of The Great Gatsby reminds me that of all the novels I’ve read, it had my favorite closing sentence:

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

The novel with my favorite opening sentence is Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

What are you own favorite closing and opening sentences?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

77 thoughts on “Famous Last and First Words”

  1. Interestingly, Hunter Thompson said that he had typed great swaths of The Great Gatsby just to see what that sort of brilliance felt like in his fingers. And then he went on to write the actual Great American Novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a Gatsbyoid exploration of the warping American Dream, full of the same vast carelessness, that tendency to smash things up and then move on. It ends: “I took another big hit off the amyl, and by the time I got to the bar my heart was full of joy. I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger… a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”

    Interesting too that F&L, like Gatsby, is basically unfilmable.

  2. For the last line, my vote is Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But you really need the four-line ending sequence:

    “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

    “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

    “Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

    “Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

  3. “For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

  4. Can I recommend a last paragraph? From James Joyce, The Dead:

    A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

  5. A couple of last lines, one from a movie:

    “It’s twue, it’s twue!”

    (And I do miss Madelein and Gilda, a lot)

    And from Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, and this is a real spoiler but appropriate here:

    “Christ, what an imagination I’ve got!”

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