Many people opine the great openings in literature. Some point to Melville’s somewhat enigmatic, “Call me Ishmael.” Others consistently cite Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I don’t want to go through that list because it has been done enough. I am of the opinion, however, that great endings have not been given their due. I don’t necessarily mean a wonderful conclusion to a plot but that artistic flair that makes a great story into great literature. Here, I’m going to tell you mine. You tell me yours in the comments.
Anyway, over the summer, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the greatest ending in literature. I maintain the passage below, from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is the most amazing ending in all of literature. She has maintained that it is the last sentence of 1984. I can’t disagree that the end of 1984 is a huge punch in the face and perhaps the most devastating conclusion in literature, but I still love the imagery that Hugo offers in this brief passage.
CHAPTER VI–THE GRASS COVERS AND THE RAIN EFFACES
In the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, in the neighborhood of the potters field,
far from the elegant quarter of that city of sepulchres, far from all
those fantastic tombs that display in presence of eternity the
hideous fashions of death, in a deserted corner, beside an old wall,
beneath a great yew tree over which climbs the wild bindweed, amid
dandelions and mosses, there lies a stone. That stone is no more exempt
than others from the leprosy of time, of dampness, of the lichens and
from the defilement of the birds. The water turns it green, the air
blackens it. It is not near any path, and people are not fond of
walking in that direction, because the grass is high and their feet
are immediately wet. When there is a little sunshine, the lizards
come thither. All around there is a quivering of weeds. In the spring,
linnets warble in the trees.
This stone is perfectly plain. In cutting it the only thought was the
requirements of the tomb, and no other care was taken than to make the
stone long enough and narrow enough to cover a man.
No name is to be read there.
Only, many years ago, a hand wrote upon it in pencil these four lines,
which have become gradually illegible beneath the rain and the dust, and
which are, to-day, probably effaced:
Il dort. Quoique le sort fut pour lui bien etrange,
Il vivait. Il mourut quand il n’eut plus son ange.
La chose simplement d’elle-meme arriva,
Comme la nuit se fait lorsque le jour s’en va.
The poem translates to this:
He is asleep. Though his mettle was sorely tried,
He lived. and when he lost his angel died.
It happened calmly on its own,
The way night comes when day is done.
I mean come on!
Fantastic tombs that display in presence of eternity the hideous fashions of death?
Leprosy of time?
What more do you want out of literature? Why can’t people still write like this?
As an aside, if you have not had the opportunity to read this book or see the Broadway show, do yourself a favor and do both. I will say, though, unless you are really dedicated, you might do well to get the abridged version of the book. I’d rather see people read that than miss out entirely.
Tell me your favorite in the comments? What’s the most amazing ending you have ever read?