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The Lincoln Highway: Let’s Talk About That Ending! (Spoilers)

The Lincoln Highway: Let’s Talk About That Ending! (Spoilers)

This is a spoiler-filled discussion about the ending to The Lincoln Highway. If you haven’t read the novel yet, wait to visit this post until after you finished it.

Welcome to the discussion about The Lincoln Highway! If you’re new to Book Club Chat, I write spoiler-free reviews and spoiler-filled book club questions for each novel I read. But lately, I’ve noticed some books deserve a third article—one dedicated to shocking endings. So please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the end of the article.

The Lincoln Highway is a coming-of-age tale about the transition from teenager to adulthood. Each of the main characters are at a crossroads of sorts and in a way, the Lincoln Highway serves as a getaway from their current, somewhat bleak situation.

Particularly, Emmett and Billy. This is their chance to leave behind Nebraska and its bad memories and try out California. While Billy hopes they can find their mother in San Fransisco (even though she abandoned the family), Emmett believes they can get a fresh start with fixing and then selling houses (the original house flippers).

But Duchess made a mess of everything. Once he steals Emmett’s car and heads up to New York, it completely delays Emmett’s and Billy’s plans.

From there, we follow Emmett and Billy’s journey to regain the car and they meet an interesting cast of characters along the way.

The Ending

Remember, this is spoilers, spoilers, spoilers from here on out! So don’t read this unless you’ve finished the book. Seriously!

Up until about the last 60 pages or so, the story is fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale with vivid imagery of the time period and lots of pondering about the past and what’s next. So the shift in tone during the climax to the ending was pretty shocking.

Emmett finds Woolly dead in his bed from a suicide. He’s distraught but when he sees Duchess, all Duchess cares about his trying to get Woolly’s inheritance that is locked away. This horrifies Emmett and he’s determined for Duchess to finally go to the police to own up to his crimes and that’s when the two get into a fight. Eventually, Emmett knocks out Duchess.

It turns out Woolly did leave each of the friends his money. So the brothers take their share of the money and plan to finally go to California.

But Emmett is concerned that Duchess will try and find them. So he decides to put an unconscious Duchess on a boat with his own share of the money. The boat contains a hole and Emmett stacks stones in order to stop the boat from flooding. However, once Duchess is awake and the money begins to blow away, Duchess shifts the boat to try and get it—causing it to sink and since Duchess can’t swim, he drowns.

We apparently see a flash before Duchess dies that shows the brothers in California, Woolly alive, Sally with a child and Sister Sarah. Clearly this doesn’t represent the future since Woolly is alive but maybe that flash was simply Duchess’ wishes. I’m not sure—what do you think about that scene?

Key Events

While the ending is shocking, there are hints of something more sinister going on earlier in the novel—Duchess’ random act of violence against the taunting cowboy in Morgen and also to Ackerly, the former warren of the juvenile camp. Duchess tries to justify both but it’s undeniable that those were unprovoked actions and the fact he doesn’t see that is pretty disturbing in itself.

And with Emmett, while he did not kill the bully on purpose back in Morgen, it does sound like he has anger issues and only Billy can get him to calm down. Although, who wouldn’t be absolutely furious with Duchess and his behavior, right?

But let’s talk over several key events. First, was this Woolly’s plan all along—to commit suicide and leave his friends his inheritance? I think so. This is why his interactions with his sister seemed to have a farewell component to it. Very sad and tragic.

I have seen people wonder if Duchess had a hand in Woolly’s death—such as ensuring Woolly would get his sister’s medicine bottle (which I don’t think we ever got the name of). So, maybe he didn’t actually kill Woolly but he also didn’t help to prevent the overdose. I think it’s left vague on purpose.

The second event I want to discuss is the fact that Duchess makes it seem like this trip is an effort to get revenge at his father for framing him and sending him to the work camp. But he never does come into contact with his father—although it seems like he does try. I was disappointed they never had an interaction and that really didn’t go anywhere.

Reading the story from Duchess’ first-person perspective caused the reader to try to sympathize with him but soon it became apparent that not only was he a liar but he’s also a dangerous person. While Duchess probably thought of himself as a hero, he was the villain, in the end. I don’t feel he was misunderstood—I believe his actions were loud and clear.

Emmett’s Motivations

And so let’s talk about the big twist—Emmett leaving Duchess in the boat. I’ve reread it a couple times and I don’t believe Emmett purposely killed Duchess. I know some feel that way but I just don’t think that was the author’s intention. I feel Emmett was truly concerned that Duchess would find him and Billy and continue to cause havoc so he had to delay Duchess.

But at the same time, I feel that Emmett didn’t care what happened to Duchess. He knows that Duchess can’t swim and he did just enough to provide some safety but it was up to Duchess to ensure that he could get back to shore. Potentially, Emmett laid the groundwork for Duchess to have to choose between the money or survival. This line Emmett thinks before driving away is significant:

“Having come fifteen hundred miles in the wrong direction, on the verge of traveling three thousand more, Emmett believed that the power within him was new in nature, that no one but he could know what he was capable of, and he only has just begun to know it himself.”

How I take this is after Emmett murdered that bully, he really worked to contain his anger but Duchess’ behavior left him no choice. If Emmett didn’t stop Duchess, Emmett believes that Duchess would again get in the way of their plans. So Emmett will not get pushed around any longer and is willing to do whatever it takes to get him and Billy to safety. So again, while I don’t think Emmett set out to murder Duchess, I also believe he didn’t care what happened to him—he just didn’t want to deal with his toxic behavior any longer.

Tell Me Your Thoughts

This is how I interpreted The Lincoln Highway ending. Agree, disagree and/or have other ideas completely? Be sure to tell me your thoughts below!


Wednesday 13th of September 2023

Wondering whether I am missing something - or is this a loose end in the story?

On page 107, when everyone still was in Morgen, Duchess receives a mysterious package delivered for him in the middle of the night to Watsons’ house…


As I was mulling this over, the beam from a set of headlights swept across the room as a vehicle pulled into the Watsons' drive and rolled to a stop. Quietly, I headed down the hall and paused at the top of the stairs. Outside I heard the door of the vehicle open. After a moment, there were footsteps on and off the porch, then the door closed and the vehicle drove away. When I was sure that no one had woken, I went down into the kitchen, opened the screen door, and stepped out onto the porch. In the distance I could see the lights of the vehicle headed back up the road. It took me a moment to notice the shoebox at my feet with big black letters scrawled across the top. I may be no scholar, but I know my own name when I see it, even by the light of the moon. Getting down on my haunches, I gently lifted the lid, wondering what in God's name could be inside. -Well, I'll be damned.


Is it explained anywhere anywhere in the story what was in the box, who sent it and for what purpose?


Sunday 3rd of September 2023

The ending was a let down and did not make sense to me.

Why did Emmett turn around and go to the Adirondacks? Did he not want to rid himself of Duchess? Did he go for Woolley’s sake?

Really!? Emmett and Billy took the money. Emmett expressed no desire for it through the story. They took it because Woolley wanted them to have it maybe? Makes no sense. They were not greedy. Bad ending.


Friday 1st of September 2023

Emmett set up a Schrödinger’s cat scenario with Duchess in the boat. Leaving him there unconscious in the precarious boat, Duchess is always alive if he chooses. Duchess only dies if greed overtakes him. In a way, Emmett knows Duchess’s failings and should know this situation will lead to his death. God, I hated this ending.

Susan Merrill

Tuesday 22nd of August 2023

Emmett knew Duchess would choose the money and that would cause him to go to the bow of the boat and ultimately drown. So I think Emmett is culpable in the death of Duchess. I also don’t buy the theory that Duchess would catch up with them and thwart their plans again. I think after he had his $50,000, he’d be done with them. In the end, Duchess was the character I most had compassion for due to the horror/tragedy of his childhood. I would have liked to see him walk away into his new life with his usual wry observations.


Saturday 12th of August 2023

A few questions: What was Sally's role in this book? Didn't really think her character was necessary or really contributed.

How did Billy know that Duchess couldn't read the House Closing rules? The "remove firing pins" part?

Do we know what Wooley's daily "medicine" was? If it was mentioned, I missed it. An opiate?

I've read all of Mr. Towles' books. His work is excellent and I recommend all his books highly!