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The Greatest Short Story Final Sentences

October 30, 2013

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Now don’t get me wrong here. Some of my favorite short stories end on more of a blip than a bang. A snatch of appropriate dialogue or a bit of ironic observation. But I really love it when a great story ends with a sentences that grabs you by the sensual lapels or smacks your sensibilities right on the back of the neck with icy verbal whips made taught by the ripening tension of a whole story, a story that stretches its single, finalizing moment to the creaky brink of a coiled spring’s capacity to hold, until, buckling under the weight of all that white space that comes after the end of it and all that writing space that comes before, until — THAROOOSH! — everything explodes into one ecstatic sentence.  So that even if you are as inept as poor old Hazel from Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” you too will exclaim at the end:

“Gee-…. I could tell that one was a doozy.”

And I’ve noticed, in looking over my own favorite doozies, how many of them fall into two syntactic categories. As sentence types, the dramatic closers I love are either hypotactic or paratactic. Hypotactic sentences have a lot of subordinated clauses that combine to express one large complicated point with lots of little, tightly related sub-points. By contrast, paratactic sentences include a lot of clauses that could each be their own point. The clauses are not necessarily related to the main point; they exist as an accumulation of equal parts, with each one contributing to the effect of the whole almost independently.

Here are a few of my favorite short story final sentences according to their syntactic classification.

Hypotaxis (Gk hypo- “beneath” + taxis “arrangement”; transliterated in L as sub- “beneath” + ordinare “arrange”)

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The last two sentences of “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, narrating the protagonist’s demise, are busy teachers. They give clinics on style and resonance all day, any time. Here they are now, teaching their lessons for all the world to hear:

He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.

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And then there’s always the violently blinding genius of Joyce Carol Oates’ finale to “Where Are Going, Where Have You Been”:

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

Parataxis (Gk “placing side by side,” fr. para beside + tassein to arrange; transliterated in L as juxta- “next” + poser [Fr] ”place”)

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The last sentence of Hamlin Garland’s “Among the Corn Rows” from his 1891 novel in story cycles Main-Traveled Roads
is a wonderful example of a paratactic sentence. The main character has just gotten the overworked Norwegian farm girl he’s fallen for to elope with him. The spot they meet at and run from remains, like the shrinking white dot from old TV sets when you turned them off, holding for a brief moment at the center of the screen, like a dying North star:

A few words, the dull tread of swift horses, the rising of a silent train of dust, and then the wind wandered in the growing corn. The dust fell, a dog barked down the road and the katydids sang to the liquid contralto of the river in its shallows.

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Or, there’s this perfectly appropriate execution scene from Thurber’s unparalleled fantasy, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”:

Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

What’s your favorite fictive farewell?

6 Comments
  1. Michael Andreoni permalink

    Absolutely love the final sentence of “Harrison Bergeron”. So understated. Another favorite is the ending to Beckett’s “The Unnamable” :

    you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

  2. Beckett is brisk music, jazzing me up and weaning me off of life’s drowsy logic.

  3. Kurt Vonngut is a genious! Love this article

  4. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink

    I lack the skill to give it a syntactic classification, but I like Jorge Luis Borges’ final sentence in “The Circular Ruins”: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.”
    Great posting thanks.

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