-by Lauren Bilsborough, Shop Team
It is an embarrassment of riches for us at the Bookbarn that International Women’s Day and World Book Day fall in the same week. The celebration of female literary excellence is pretty much an everyday preoccupation here for us bookworms, but the unique opportunity to bask in the radiance of the books which changed our lives and the incredible, flawed, dazzlingly clever and unfailingly witty women who wrote them cannot be brushed past in silent devotion. So we have taken some time to make this list, somewhat foolishly titled “The Greatest Last Lines by Women in Literature”. We know, of course, that greatness is a subjective idea, and that there are a multitude of women whom we have not yet heard from, or whose genius has been lost to the annals of time and to a historical canon largely composed by and for men. There are excellent academics uncovering these voices as we speak, and we will have to write another list for those authors now being rediscovered, from whom we are removed by decades and centuries. For others, we will have to wait a little longer.
But today we honour a few women whose names we learned at school and have heard a million times, and a few who have stormed onto the scene in the last decade and are loved by millions. The women we have chosen to shine a light on are poets, memoirists, feminists and journalists, and the choices reflect this. So here goes: in no particular order, our picks for the greatest last lines by women in literature.
Tahmima Anam, The Golden Age (2007)
[Photo from The National, arts and culture section]
Anam makes this list easily with her stunning debut The Golden Age, set against the backdrop of war-torn Bangladesh as it fights for independence from Pakistan. In these final lines, the protagonist, Rehana, speaks to the grave of her late husband about her years-long battle between national and familial loyalty, and once more asserts her devotion to the children she has fought tirelessly to love and protect through the violence and bloodshed that has threatened them at every turn, as they fight for the future of the country.
“The war will end today. Niazi will sign the treaty and I will walk into the streets. Your daughter will hold my hand. There will be a pressing crowd on the pavement but Maya will elbow us to the front. A boy will sell flags for two taka and everyone will wave and crane their necks to see the road. Coloured paper will sail from buildings; fists will wave in the air; there will be dancing, a man on a flute, a woman beating a dhol slung across her shoulder. Someone will think to plug a megaphone to the radio. The roads are flat and dusty; we are spellbound, love-bound, home-bound, singing ‘How I love you, my golden Bengal.’ The sky is pale and iridescent and today the war has ended, and today I will clutch my flag, hold my breath and wait for our son.
I know what I have done. This war that has taken so many sons has spared mine. This age that has burned so many daughters has not burned mine. I have not let it.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
[Photo from Poetry Foundation]
Few bookworms will have trawled the libraries and bookshops of the world and managed to miss the name Sylvia Plath. A true inventor when it came to language and a master when it came to story, Plath gifted us some truly exceptional works in her time, From the celebrated Ariel (1965), her masterful collection of poems, through to her largely biographical novel The Bell Jar. Though we found it difficult to narrow it down to just one example of closing brilliance, we thought it greedy to write up every one of her final phrases simply because we like to have them pass through our fingers. So we have chosen the last lines of The Bell Jar, where protagonist Esther Greenwood walks into a meeting with psychiatrists at the mental hospital where she has spent the last few months. Here it will be decided whether she is ready to leave for good. The lines come at the end of multiple suicide attempts and chapters upon chapters of mental anguish. They imply a lightness we haven’t yet felt, and a promise that things will be okay for this character we have come to love through her struggles, as we loved Plath herself.
“The eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”
Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir (2009)
[Photo from Bustle]
Mary Karr’s Lit is a sublime, painful and sensational read, as it charts the poet and memoirist’s battle with alcoholism, ending with her gradual spiritual awakening. She navigates her role as a writer, a mother, a divorcee and a reluctant Catholic and writes it down with the lightness of touch we fans of her poetry and her earlier memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry, have come to know and love. Here she is at the end of her masterpiece, writing to her son and offering us just a few pages of her undoubtedly enormous wisdom:
“Every now and then we enter the presence of the numinous and deduce for an instant how we were formed. In what detail the force that infuses every petal might specifically run through us, wishing only to lure us into our full potential. Usually, the closest we get is when we love, or when some beloved beams back, which can galvanize you like steel and make resilient what had heretofore only been soft flesh… it can start you singing as the lion pads over to you, its jaws hanging open, its hot breath on you. Even unto death.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists (2014)
[Photo from The New Yorker]
Many came to Adichie either through her feminist activism, her brilliant fiction or, perhaps, through Beyoncé’s inclusion of Adichie’s Ted Talk in her 2013 self-titled album. Adichie is doing some incredible heavy lifting, advocating for an inclusive feminism in her non-fiction and holding the line as a frontrunner in the canon of contemporary African literature with her novels. The following lines come from the little book which caused some big waves, We Should All Be Feminists (pretty much a transcript of her excellent Ted Talk of the same name, linked at the end of this article).
“My great-grandmother, from stories I’ve heard, was a feminist. She ran away from the house of the man she did not want to marry and married the man of her choice. She refused, protested, spoke up whenever she felt she was being deprived of land because she was female. She did not know that word feminist. But it doesn’t mean she wasn’t one. More of us should reclaim that word… My own definition of a feminist is a man or woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’
All of us, women and men, must do better.”
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (2011)
[Photo from Brown alumni magazine]
Miller’s respect and adoration now is largely a result of her most famous novel, The Song of Achilles, which retells the familiar Homeric tale The Iliad in beautiful prose, focusing this time on the love story of Achilles and Patroclus, the true nature of whose relationship has been the subject of much scholarly work for centuries. Miller writes an incredibly affecting and nail-biting love story, taking one of the oldest stories of literature and making it new in a way we rarely get to see. The end of her novel, which depicts the famous deaths of the main characters, has us all in tears and awe at the romantic journey she has taken us on and what she is able to do as a writer, as Miller offers us her interpretation of how the afterlife looks for these two lovers:
“In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in like a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.”
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
[Photo from Literary Hub]
Woolf needs no introduction, nor does her genius need any defence in the annals of literature. No list of great lines would be complete without her. Her perfect, luxurious turns of phrase hold true today for their ability to captivate us, to make us wish we could have sat at her feet as she wrote and begged for simply a word of her thoughts be shared with us, so we might imprint it on our souls and carry it with us throughout our lives. We have selected the conclusive paragraph of To the Lighthouse, one of Woolf’s most-studied texts, to indulge in today. It features the humble Lily Briscoe at the climax of her artistic expression, as she finishes the work which has occupied her thoughts throughout the years of the novel:
“With sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
And what a vision it was. Regardless of historical erasure, or personal trials and shortcomings, or political restrictions, the women included in this article, and many more we didn’t have space to mention-- Austen, the Brontes, Zadie Smith, Han Kang, J.K Rowling, Toni Morrison, the list is wonderfully endless-- managed to create for us the most exquisite worlds through words. The work of their lives has been the blessing of ours, and so long as we keep their memories and words alive in ourselves, passing them down through our children and grandchildren, the female literary tradition will thrive ad infinitum. So we wish you a combined Happy International Women’s Day and Happy World Book Day. Here at the start of this brand new decade, we are excited and anxious and holding our breath: we cannot wait to see what else women are capable of.
As mentioned, there are many women who do not feature here that we adore, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on the authors listed as well as your favourites who aren’t on the list. Additionally, below are some links to articles which make excellent follow-up reading to this post, including Electric Lit’s list of brilliant Women and Non-Binary authors of colour to feast your eyes on if you’re interested. Happy Reading!
To stay up to date with Bookbarn news, events and updates, sign up to our Mailing List