On endings – in novels, that is

Road Ends sign

The End! (Courtesy: OCAL via clker.com)

Australian writer, Amanda Lohrey, was interviewed on this morning’s Bookshow about her new book, a collection of short stories titled Reading Madame Bovary, which Lisa at ANZLitLovers has well reviewed. I’m not going to talk about the interview here in any detail, but I did think she had something interesting to say about endings, particularly given the last two books I’ve read whose endings were a little surprising.

Before getting to Lohrey, though, let’s just recap EM Forster‘s famous (well, I like it anyhow) statement about endings in his Aspects of the novel:

Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? … Incidents and people that occurred at first for their own sake now have to contribute to the dénouement … most novels do fail here – there is this disastrous standstill while logic takes over the command from flesh and blood. If it was not for death and marriage I do not know how the average novelist would conclude.

Oh dear…that is certainly how novels in the past usually concluded isn’t it? Modern – Modernist and, particularly, Postmodernist (but don’t test me too closely on literary theory because I haven’t made a close study of it) – novels are more likely to have an open ending. They don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that there must be a dénouement that ties everything up (except perhaps for genre fiction?) which creates a challenge for readers. You get to the end of an open-ended novel and are forced to ask “What was that about?”. With a traditionally ended novel, all you have to say is, well, boy met girl, boy lost girl, boy got girl again. Of course, it was usually about something else but a simple, straightforward plot can discourage further thought about the “about” question.

Amanda Lohrey expressed it this way. She said “I think that surprise is absolutely essential to satisfying fiction” but this surprise must not be too absurd, extreme or contrived. Rather it should be something that gives you a “hit of adrenaline”, that you didn’t see coming but makes you think “yes, of course, that must be how it will end”. She goes on to say that “plot isn’t everything” but there must be a journey…

So, where does all this leave us? Take my two recent reads. There was some consternation among my reading friends about the ending of Lionel Shriver’s So much for that. It was pretty much a surprise – but the question is whether it meets the second part of Lohrey’s criteria. For some it was a cop-out and diluted the novel’s intent but that, of course, depends on what you think the intent is. My other example is John Banville‘s The Infinities. It also had a surprising ending that could also be seen as a cop-out but, when I stop to think about it, particularly its somewhat playful tone, the ending did in fact make sense. (It’s telling, I think, that  part of the surprise of these two potentially “copout” endings is that they are reasonably positive!)

All this said, I must say that I often forget the ending of novels I’ve read (unless they’re of the traditional marriage or death variety). What I tend not to forget though is the tone and my emotional reaction – and that is good enough for me. What about you? What do you think about endings and do you have any favourite or problematic ones?

24 thoughts on “On endings – in novels, that is

  1. Nice article – to make you think.

    Surprise endings are good so long as they don’t seem artificial and out of context. Enigmatic endings which make you unsure of what happened can work well as you have to come up with your own solution.

    But, don’t we all have a desire for resolution of one sort or another? We tend not to like unresolved mysteries and it can be frustrating when the author just seems to give up.

    • Great reflections Tom. I think we do all like resolutions – and that’s what Lohrey was saying I think. I suspect Forster was being a bit tongue-in-cheek and railing against the prevailing expectations? The challenge is to have a resolution that’s not too neatly tied up but not too contrived or, as you say, out of context. There are endings like, I think the Shriver, where you know what the ending is but you’re not sure exactly why the author chose to end it that way.

      Enigmatic ones can be a bit frustrating and yet sometimes they are fun too because you don’t just put down the book with a “that’s that” do you? I think we see enigmatic endings more often in short stories don’t we?

  2. Hmm… this has made me consider the fact that I always have trouble concentrating during the last two or so pages of a book. I’ve never known if this is my mind trying to draw the book out or my mind shutting down in anticipation of finishing, but perhaps it’s because I don’t want to be disappointed by a “cop-out” ending?

    Gone With The Wind is one that stands out for me as a strong ending… but then again that book made me so miserable that a lot of its stands out in my memory!

    • Only you can know … but maybe it is. How many cop-out endings have you read do you think.

      Oh yes, I never forget your reaction to Gone with the wind. It is a strong and rather open ending isn’t it? Who know what will happen tomorow!

  3. I hate it when the ending is too neat and tidy and the author wrenches the story to fit. I hate it if the author takes the easy way out for an ending which is also often what they are doing when they force the story to fit the ending. I love open ended books, ones that make me ask what happened. They invite me to continue thinking about the book and the characters after I have read the last page and sometimes to reassess all that came before. That said, I do like books that have a definite ending too like Charles Dickens and so many other wonderful classic novels. And while a badly written ending doesn’t necessarily ruin the whole book it certainly makes me like the book less.

  4. And of course the best thing is when a book ends and you just want the characters to go on and on. That’s sign of authorial success in my view

  5. I must confess: I’m terrible in this respect. If a novelist poses a question or a challenge, as Martel does in Life of Pi, then he’d better pony up and answer or address it very well (he doesn’t, which is why I think the ending/novel bites something fierce). If a novelist introduces a mystery, then he better give me the resources to figure it out (The Immaculate Conception fails in this respect). Or if a novelist introduces a conflict, then he should resolve the damn thing (Out Stealing Horses, a mixed bag), unless uncertainty is part of his subject matter, in which case my need for resolution can be suspended in the interests of a higher telos. As I said, I must confess! I’m a limited faulty creature. Cheers, Kevin

    • Ha, Kevin, as I was writing this post I considered referring to Life of Pi. I loved the ending – loved the conundrum it posed and the way it made you really think about what you thought the novel was about. The ending made me laugh, actually. It’s an ending that encourages a lot of discussion. I haven’t read the other two books you refer to. I agree though that there should be clues to understanding the ending … I think there are enough in Pi, at least for me to justify my understanding of the ending but don’t ask me to explain it all in detail now as that was 7 years ago!

      Oh, and no false modesty! I don’t think you are a limited faulty creature at all!

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  7. The Great Gatsby has one of the most memorable endings, in the way the last sentence is phrased – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”

    Along the same lines, the ending of Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird (a wonderful dystopian novel) resonates with the reader long after you’ve put down the book. In fact I think the ending of Mockingbird is pretty well perfect and goes full circle back to the beginning of the book.

    • Thanks Anne, that is a great ending – wonderful image – for Gatsby, isn’t it? I haven’t read Mockingbird – though I do rather like dystopian novels. Some of my favourite endings are for A fine balance (it’s quiet, domestic but packs a punch), Life of Pi (because I had to laugh), The moon tiger (for the beautiful way it expresses her death) …

  8. “Mockingbird” is one of the most exquisitley plotted novels I’ve ever read and is one of those books that rewards rereading. I reviewed it on Cat Politics here if you want to know more. If you like dystopian novels, you’d probably love Mockingbird.

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  10. I agree with Anne – the ending of Great Gatsby is beautiful. On the other side of the coin, not many reach the end of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but many who do agree that it is not particularly brilliant, even though the book is.

    • It is so long since I read Gatsby, I feel I must read it again … as for W&P, I’ve never got to the end so I wouldn’t know. One day I will complete it though and let you know if I agree!

  11. Here is the first paragraph of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark:

    “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

    That first paragraph gives you the entire plot of the novel. All that remains is the detail of how it unfolds. There is no surprise.

    I disagree with Lohrey. In fact, I disagree quite strongly. Surprise isn’t necessary, it isn’t even necessarily desirable. Often, it’s merely trite (as Stefanie notes, it can lead to the book being twisted to the conclusion, McEwan is awful for this). A lot of truly great books don’t fit that criteria, it seems to me best suited to middlebrow fiction or thrillers, rather than serious literature.

    And I sincerely hope I say nothing that snobby again for ages…

    • LOL Max … there’s nothing wrong with a bit of snobbery …

      Of course Lohrey did add the proviso that it mustn’t seem absurd, extreme or contrived. Also I suppose it depends a bit on how you define “surprise”. Does it have to be whizz-bang or can it be a quiet open-ended tailing off?

      BUT, I’m glad you wrote this because as I wrote the post I was wondering whether I totally agreed with her. I was thinking of a lot of 19th century literature where you expect the happy ending and can usually work it out way before it happens (though not always of course). Do we, for example, expect Elizabeth and Darcy to get together? It’s so long since I first read Austen’s novels that I can’t recollect! Re your example there’s also Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a death foretold which starts off something like “On the day that he was to die …”. The novel explores the versions and implications but we know he is going to die and the point is not whodunnit.

      I think Lohrey’s mistake was saying surprise is “absolutely essential” because she then went on to say that not all fiction – particularly short fiction – has to have a plot, so where does that leave her pronouncement?

  12. Endings are a rather contentious issue, isn’t it? I like open ended endings or where only the most pressing questions and mysteries are explained. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ ending has divided readers and I think the ending is partly to blame. The ending tied up the story but it didn’t explain anything, leaving everything open to interpretation. Sadly, I can’t remember good endings, only the bad ones. Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes great stories but very bizarre endings.

    • Oh, great recent example Mae of a recent “interesting” ending. I like the challenge of endings like that and, to some degree, don’t mind if I can’t be sure what the author meant IF it was a great read and my interpretation of the ending worked for me! But, The little stranger was a bit tricky. Waters said that she wanted to leave it open but thought she’d left the clues! Not clearly enough it seems! (I’m still thinking!). I loved the ending of A fine balance – to give one good one for me!

  13. Thanks zmkc. You know, I keep changing my mind about it! One minute I think it was inspired, and then I think have I missed it? It was a good read though wasn’t it? I loved the way she evoked the whole period, the class change occurring etc.

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