February 20, 2006

Why it's usually the first that lasts

I've been thinking about first and last lines of novels. Are endings less striking than beginnings, in the sense that we don't so easily or so often remember them verbatim? I've convinced myself, at least, that endings are less likely to be quoted.

One of the most striking last sentences that I can think of is from Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises:

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

This is widely enough quoted or otherwise re-used that {"pretty to think so"} gets 16,900 Google hits. Another candidate is the last line of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

which yields 38,500 for {"a far far better thing"}.

But Moby Dick's opening {"call me Ishmael"} gets 155,000 hits, and the start of Pride and Prejudice {"in want of a wife"} gets 74,300. And the opening of A Tale of Two Cities gets 1,780,000 for {"the best of times"}, and even 405,000 for {"the best of times" "the worst of times"}.

Of course, there are plenty of great beginnings that are rarely quoted -- James Joyce's {"stately plump buck mulligan"} gets only 10,900 hits, and Dodie Smith's {"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink"} gets a mere 805. So you'd need a much more systematic survey to conclude reliably that beginnings are more often quoted or snowcloned than endings. But beginnings do have an obvious advantage: they come first.

Beginnings are designed to work out of context, or rather in the context of no context. The first line needs to seize our attention and keep it, even if we don't entirely understand what it says. And if we remember the opening line when we've forgotten most of what follows, then we're just back where we were when it first impressed us.

Endings are different: they depend on the fact that we've experienced the rest of the story. When we're not immersed in that context, a brilliant ending may seem dull. Consider the end of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire:

But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out -- somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door -- a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.

If we've read the book, we know who Gradus is, and whose door his superior counterpart will ring at, and why. Or more precisely, we don't know, because everything we've learned comes from the most unreliable narrator ever, created by a writer who once explained that

A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child's scrawl on the fence, and the crank's message in the market place. Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase "sincere and simple"-- "Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere"-- under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: "Art is simple, art is sincere." Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

So at the end of Pale Fire, our ignorance of Gradus and Kinbote and Shade is as richly structured and emotionally overwhelming as our ignorance of real life. In that context, its last sentence is one of my favorites, but without the rest of the book, it's inert and lifeless.

The last phase of The Sun Also Rises -- "Isn't it pretty to think so?" -- is intrinsically striking because it uses pretty as an evaluative adjective in the frame "it's __ to think so", where we expect something like nice. In effect, the decontextualized quote gets its force from subverting an idiom and forcing us to think about why the speaker chose that slightly ill-fitting adjective. But the effect changes, I think, with just enough additional context to give us a human frame for reasoning about word choice:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

And the impact changes again if we've read the whole book, and know why they didn't have a good time together, and why they aren't about to start.

One more example -- the last sentence of Patrick O'Brian's The Letter of Marque:

She urged West out of the cabin and on deck, and there he and the amazed foremast hands saw a blue and gold coach and four, escorted by a troop of cavalry in mauve coats with silver facings, driving slowly along the quay with their captain and a Swedish officer on the box, their surgeon and his mate leaning out of the windows, and all of them, now joined by the lady on deck, singing Ah tutti contenti saremo cosí, ah tutti contenti saremo, saremo cosí with surprisingly melodious full-throated happiness.

When I read this at the end of the book, in the context of the preceding 11 books in the series and the plot of Le Nozze di Figaro, knowing who the lady on deck is and what her relationship has been to the men coming along the quay, this brought tears to my eyes. Out of context, it's just a long sentence describing an implausible and rather silly scene.

[Update: John Cowan points to this compendium of notable last lines. I used it to try a little experiment on myself. Of the 100 works cited in the last-lines list, I believe that I've read 97; but only 18 of the quoted last lines seemed familiar to me as specific word-sequences. (Note that the last-lines list contains several poems, many Shakespeare plays, and at least one short story.) In the case of the Pantagraph list of the 100 best first lines, I've read only 79 of the works, but remembered the wording of 65 of their openings.

John also cited this blog discussion of last lines, which in turn references an 11/21/2005 article about last lines in The Telegraph, which ends this way:

All-time favourite ending? Too many to choose among, but it might be hard to beat the end of The Code of the Woosters, with its drowsy confusion of quotation and happy oblivion, now that everything has been tidily sorted out: "And presently the eyes closed, the muscles relaxed, the breathing became soft and regular, and sleep, which does something which has slipped my mind to the something sleeve of care, poured over me in a healing wave." You'd sleep soundly after that, no doubt about it, whether you'd written it, or merely read it.

That one I remember. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 20, 2006 12:01 AM