There are last lines of novels, plays, stories and poems, and there are last lines spoken by characters.
Composing a last line that can never be revised is a scary prospect. I would hate to think of a much better ending after the work is published. Or when I am no longer inhabiting a body.
I would love to be remembered for a famous last line, even though being remembered is a heroic or ridiculous fight against the odds. As some famous person once explained, if you want to know how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone, stick your finger in a bowl of water, then pull out the finger and look for the hole you left.
I went through a phase of loving the last lines of characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies who remark “Oh! I am slain” when run through with a sword, and then sum up their lives in stanzas of blank verse.
As Mercutio, the hero’s best-buddy sidekick in Romeo and Juliet says (approximately): “Look for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.” Ha! A joker to the end, he debunks the seriousness of death even while acknowledging that death will shut him up soon. It’s a memorable parting shot.
I occasionally wonder whether being run through with a sword would sharpen my own wit. Probably not.
Then there are the legendary last words and last actions of actual people, some of them famous writers. A story is told about experimental writer Gertrude Stein, a pillar of the expatriate English-speaking community of Paris between the two world wars. Supposedly she was asked by a fan, while in sight of the end: “Gertrude, what is the answer?”
Her answer: “What is the question?”
That line (assuming she said any such thing) allows for endless interpretations. I like it a lot.
The last line of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ historical novel about the French Revolution, is both the conclusion of the novel and the last line spoken by a major character, Sydney Carton. The line is hard to forget.
Carton is an Englishman who has surrendered to temptations, or as my mother would put it, he is “no better than he should be.” He bears an uncanny resemblance to Charles Darnay, a decent Frenchman who has changed his name to distance himself from his dissolute aristocratic relatives.
Carton and Darnay fall in love with the same French girl, and she accepts Darnay’s proposal. Carton promises to help the new couple if he can.
Darnay is framed by the revolutionaries and sentenced to a rendezvous with Madame Guillotine along with his wife and daughter. Carton is able to smuggle Darnay out of prison and get the family out of France, but they will be pursued to the death if the prisoner’s escape is discovered.
Carton decides to impersonate Darnay and be executed in his place. He says, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
When I first read that novel in my teens, I was horrified. What, no last-minute rescue for the man who has already done a good deed?
But Carton, who is about to redeem himself thoroughly, gets the last word, and there is a certain wisdom in what he says. A happy ending for some is not a happy ending for all. If the willing sacrifice of one person saves several others and ends a cycle of violence, doesn’t it make sense?
Sydney Carton’s statement ends his life and the plot in a way that is more satisfying than the ending of most historical events. It’s hard to imagine how to top that.
They don’t make last lines the way they used to. I assume my own last words will be something like, “Do you think these leftovers are still okay?”