You know it when you read one. Whether it be an essay, a short story, or a novel, if it sums up the entire work into one killer conclusion, the reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction. A bad ending, or the wrong ending can ruin everything.
In my current work in progress, I am now at the end of the second draft. I spent the spring and summer to date reworking the final third of the book. The past three weeks have seen me re-write the final sentence several times a day.
The quest for that last great sentence sent me on a search and I came across this article from The Guardian.
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Perhaps the most frequently quoted final sentence. One of those endings that suggests the opposite of an ending: you may want to "move on", but you keep getting taken back to the story you thought you'd finished.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
This is the terrible one because, by the time you get to it, you realize how inevitable it is. Winston Smith's fate is not just to be defeated, but to have his will turned to submission. "He loved Big Brother."
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
"After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain." At the end of this novel of love and war, hope and desperation, all passion is spent. The narrator's lover has died in childbirth and the only possible conclusion is one of those perfect Hemingway sentences, expressively drained of expressiveness.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
"I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be." A more recent example of the ending where the weight is in what is not said. If you haven't read the novel, it is banal; if you have read the novel, you'll know how eloquently desolate this is.
We must wander into French for one of the most discussed final sayings in fiction. "'Cela est bien dit,' répondit Candide, 'mais il faut cultiver notre jardin'." After everything absurd and horrific that they have seen, after traveling the globe to witness the extremes of human folly and cruelty, Candide recommends a little horticulture. Endless ink has been spent explaining what Voltaire was "saying".
Franz Kafka, The Trial
The ultimate finality, the moment of the protagonist's death. As a knife twists in his heart, Josef K realizes that it is the victim who is ashamed, not the perpetrator. "'Like a dog!' he said, it was as if the shame of it must outlive him." In German, it is even more terrible.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
More ending in death, but this time it sounds like a solace after life. "I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
While this list covers many of my great favorites, I cast about for my own choice. What sprung immediately to mind comes from James Joyce. His memorable short story, "The Dead," carries my choice for the perfect ending. In this case, the whole paragraph must be included.
"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, on 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."
Because I cannot possibly add anything to that, I will simply close by writing these words: The End.