Like the opening of an essay, the closing should be proportional to the length and complexity of the whole piece. Several paragraphs, or only one, or even a single sentence may be sufficient. But whatever its length, a closing must do certain things.
The most obvious function of a closing is to say, "The end." There are several ways of doing this.
The simplest is to employ a word or phrase like in conclusion, concluding, finally, lastly, in the last analysis, to close, in closing, and so on. Adverbs showing a loose consequential relationship also work: then, and so, thus. Generally it is best to keep such terminal words unobtrusive. In writing, the best technique hides itself.
This strategy works on the analogy of a circle, which ends where it began. The final paragraph repeats an important word or phrase prominent in the beginning, something the reader will remember. If the strategy is to work, the reader has to recognize the key term (but of course you cannot hang a sign on it—"Remember this"). You must stress it more subtly, perhaps by position or by using an unusual, memorable word. In an essay of any length it may be wise to repeat the phrase now and again, and sometimes writers emphasize the fact of completion by saying something like, "We return, then, to____"
In a sketch of a famous aristocrat, Lady Hester Stanhope, the biographer Lytton Strachey opens with this paragraph:
The Pitt nose [Lady Stanhope belonged to the famous Pitt family] has a curious history. One can watch its transmigrations through three lives. The tremendous hook of Old Lord Chatham, under whose curves Empires came to birth, was succeeded by the bleak upward-pointing nose of William Pitt the younger—the rigid symbol of an indomitable hauteur. With Lady Hester Stanhope came the final stage. The nose, still with an upward tilt in it, had lost its masculinity; the hard bones of the uncle and grandfather had disappeared. Lady Hester's was a nose of wild ambitions, of pride grown fantastical, a nose that scorned the earth, shooting off, one fancies, towards some eternally eccentric heaven. It was a nose, in fact, altogether in the air.
And here are the final three sentences of Strachey's sketch:
The end came in June, 1839. Her servants immediately possessed themselves of every moveable object in the house. But Lady Hester cared no longer: she was lying back in her bed—inexplicable, grand, preposterous, with her nose in the air.
Not only does Strachey's phrase latch the end of his essay to its beginning, it also conveys his attitude toward Lady Hester Stanhope. The expression that completes the circle necessarily looms large in the reader's mind, and it must be genuinely important.
Prose rhythm is complex. Here it is enough to understand that, however it works, rhythm is inevitable and important. Because it is, you can use it to signal the closing by varying the movement of the final sentence or sentences.
Usually the variation is to slow the sentence and make its rhythm more regular. A famous example is the end of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the aftertime, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with her dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child life, and the happy summer days.
The passage is slowed by interrupting constructions (for example, "in the aftertime") and regularized by repeating similar constructions ("and how," for instance) to create an almost poetic rhythm (the X marks unstressed syllables and the / denotes stressed):
and the happy summer days.
Occasionally writers take the other tack and close with a short, quick sentence rather than a long, slow, regular one. Such an ending is most effective played against a longer statement, as in this passage, which concludes Joan Didion's essay "On Morality":
Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And think we are already there.
Failing to use a brief sentence as a way of ending sometimes wastes a potentially good closing:
At last the hardworking housewife is ready to watch her favorite television program, but before fifteen minutes are up she is sound asleep in her chair and before she realizes it the 6:30 alarm is going off and it is time to start another day.
It is better like this:
Before she realizes it the 6:30 alarm is going off. Another day.
A final way of signaling the end is simply to stop at a natural point, one built into the subject. For example, in a biographical sketch of someone who is dead the obvious place to end is with the death scene, as in the passage quoted earlier by Lytton Strachey about Lady Hester Stanhope. Another instance is this paragraph, the end of Llewelyn Powys's essay "Michel de Montaigne":
On 13 September, 1592, Michel de Montaigne, having distributed certain legacies to his servants, summoned his parish priest to his bedside, and there in his curious room with the swallows already gathering on the leaden gutters outside, he heard Mass said for the last time in the company of certain of his neighbors. With due solemnity the blessed sacrament was elevated, and at the very moment that this good heretical Catholic and Catholic heretic (unmindful for once of his nine learned virgins) was raising his arms in seemly devotion toward the sacred which in its essence—que sfais-je— might, or might not, contain a subtle and crafty secret, he fell back dead.
Here the effectiveness of closing with the death scene is reinforced by the careful construction of the last sentence, which does not complete its main thought until the very final word. "Dead" falls into place like the last piece of a puzzle.
Natural closings are not restricted to deathbed descriptions. Writing about your daily routine, for instance, you might well end with some variation of the phrase the diarist Samuel Pepys made famous: "And so to Even when a subject does not have a built-in closing, a comparison or figure of speech can provide one.
These, then, are some of the ways of making clear that you are through. The various techniques do not exclude one another; they are often combined. Nor are these the only devices of closing. Inventive writers tailor their endings to subject and purpose. The poet Dylan Thomas wittily concludes his essay "How To Begin a Story" by doing what inexperienced writers should not stopping in mid-sentence:
I see there is little, or no, time to continue my instructional essay on "How To Begin a Story." "How To End a Story" is, of course, a different matter. . . . One way of ending a story is. ...
And Virginia Woolf closes an essay called "Reading" with this sentence:
Some offering we must make; some act we must dedicate, if only to move across the room and turn the rose in the jar, which, by the way, has dropped its petals.
It is difficult to say why this works. The rhythm is important. But so is the image. The flower that has dropped its petals is perhaps a metaphor of ending. And the seeming irrelevancy of the final clause also signals finality, like the gracious closing of a conversation. In any case, the passage ends the essay neatly and unmistakably. That is the important thing.
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