Maybe because I read them at a particularly formative and impressionable time in my life, I am always, somewhere in the back of my mind, thinking about the endings of some of James Joyce's stories—particularly Araby and The Dead. Maybe just because they're such terrific endings.
In the first case, Araby, you have this quiet, melancholy story about a young boy's hopeless romantic longing for the girl across the street—you feel like that's where the story's headed and what it's all about. Youthful romance, longing, and loss of innocence. And though when you think of Joyce, typically you envision a fairly dispassionate or detached narrative stance/narrator, with Araby you have this kid who's almost in a fever over the object of his romantic desire/fascination. Easy to relate to, poignant, full of longing—and then you get to that final home-run line, which is, in fact, as dispassionate and detached (and "told" rather than "shown") as can be, so very Joyce-like, and yet also hugely, perfectly resonant: "Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and fear." Every little detail leading up to it has earned those last words of flat, told revelation/epiphany for the unnamed narrator. Without the final line, the story would be
well, still a good story, but not the exceptional thing it is.
I've tried and tried, more times than I care to admit, to end a story on such a strong, sudden, and high note, and have never quite managed to make it work. The line does stick out like a sore thumb, yes
but like a thumb that's just hit the perfect note and then poked you right in the eye. To me, it's still amazing.
The ending of The Dead, of course, is famously unsurpassed for its lyricism and reach, none of which would be possible without the accumulation of detail leading up to it—the political discussions at the party, Gabriel's sudden longing for his wife and his disillusionment about her romantic past, etc. And then those closing lines which are so famous and widely imitated, with all the repetitions of falling and softly and snow
snow covering over everything. Feels like a kind of frozen baptism for the story, for everything and everyone in Dubliners—somehow forgiving and releasing them
and freezing them into place (perfect, because of the book's focus on different forms of psychological, emotional, moral paralysis). Again, there's the same kind of flat, told tone of sudden self-awareness as in Araby through much of the ending of The Dead, but softened by all the snow and lyricism. The first time I encountered it, in a class at college, I was so excited I felt like I was on fire and had to jump on my bike and ride to campus to find someone, anyone from class to talk to about it.
There are other story endings that blow me away, no matter how many times I read them—Murakami's Honeypie; Alice Munro's Carried Away; Stuart Dybek's Pet Milk. But those Joyce stories have the most permanent hold on my imagination somehow.