Conclusions matter. Writers spend time and effort getting them right. Readers make judgements based on how satisfactorily conclusions answer questions posed in openings. Ernest Hemingway wrote dozens of endings to A Farewell to Arms, Walter Benjamin offered 13 theses for writers that included the advice to find ‘courage’ for writing the conclusion by moving out of familiar surroundings. Both Franz Kafka and William Godwin were novelists who wrote their conclusions before the body of their work, while Henry James, who pioneered the modernist open approach that leaves the reader with choices, defined contemporary Victorian-era conclusions as ‘appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks’.
The existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, concerning a three-way relationship that ends in a death, left the reader to sort out the philosophical twists and turns long after the plot had concluded.
Yet, for all its importance and having so much riding on it, it is not easy to define ‘conclusion’ when applied to the novel. A commentator like David Lodge in the The Art of Fiction suggests a division between the end of a novel’s story, ‘the narrative questions it has raised in the minds of its readers’, and the final pages that often serve as an undeclared epilogue or ‘deceleration of the discourse at it draws to a halt’.
So, the Epilogue in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opens after the year of the title has passed, the action has come to a violent climax and the group of runaways is breaking up in divorce and acrimony. The story announced in the title has concluded and the characters’ fates are messily unresolved. The complexities of their inner lives have been well drawn in the body of the novel and the reader might be trusted to divine the future course of their fictional lives. Instead, an epilogue is deployed to decide who has lived and who has died, who has prospered financially and who emotionally. As John Mullan suggests in How Novels Work an epilogue ‘risks persuading the reader that the author feels uneasy about the ending’. And perhaps in seeking to achieve what Henry James described in his 1884 essay The Art of Fiction as ‘a course of dessert and ices’ to finish off a good dinner, Sahota induces a little indigestion.
Xiaolu Guo ends her A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers with an epilogue too, but of a different character; more reminiscent in presentation to a cinematic postscript. Her epilogue takes the form of a triptych of short diary entries – Day 1, Day 100, Day 500 – written after her central character ‘Z’ returns to China following the ending of both her English language course and the intense, troubled relationship with her English lover. The first-person entries, addressed in part to her ex lover, and including his final letter to her, allow ‘Z’ to distance herself in time and space from the events of the story and create space for the reader to pause and reflect with her on the lasting changes these events wrought.
In The Heart Goes Last Margaret Atwood inserts a climactic ‘ending’ mid-way through the novel. Her character Charmaine is faced with deciding whether to fulfil her duty as the secret in-house executioner in a dystopian prison-housing complex by killing her husband, Stan. Charmaine presents the sedated, unresponsive Stan with ‘a heartfelt, lingering kiss’ before plunging the deadly needle into his neck and then herself collapsing. It is, of course, a false ending, a pivot point for a novel that opens out to explore a broader landscape of free will and personal responsibility in the face of authoritarianism. The very form of this book and every book, gives the game away. The reader knows that this ‘ending’ cannot be the conclusion, or even the final course before the dessert, because of what Jane Austen described as the ‘tell-tale compression of the pages’. Half the novel is still to come. There is as much to follow as has already passed.
Over the next 200 pages Stan, following a ‘brain adjustment’, goes on to live a life of ignorant bliss with Charmaine, but Atwood again refuses the reader a neat conclusion. She throws the story wide open in its final sentence when Charmaine responds to the revelation that she, unlike Stan, has retained her free will throughout by asking: ‘How do you mean?’
In the pulse of closing down and re-opening the story, Atwood combines Aristotle’s injunction in the Poetics that the ‘denouement’ in tragedy should last from the end of the beginning – the ‘complication’, or point at which the audience has been presented with the character and the character presented with the problems and the choices they must make – to their unravelling, with James’ bold decision, for the time in which he was writing, in the conclusion to The Portrait of a Lady to leave his central character ‘en l’air’. Atwood employs a traditionalist’s concern with the ordered unity and wholeness of a beginning, middle and end with the modernist realisation that, as James put it: ‘The whole of anything is never told’.
Perhaps ownership might be a useful way of categorising conclusions and testing the relative success in relation to the rest of the novel. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is ‘Z’s’ coming-of-age story, told from her point of view and displaying an increasingly assured use of the English language as the novel develops alongside her language course. Appropriate then that she takes ownership of her own conclusion, making sense of what has taken place for herself. The Year of the Runaways displays a clear external authorial hand in its structuring. It is this authorial hand that has divided up chapters between characters, decided when their back-stories are introduced and has taken ownership of how the novel must finish. As satisfying as it might have been for the reader to be left to decide the characters’ fates, Sahota has been stylistically coherent in using his power as author to deploy his directive epilogue. Atwood is equally powerful and present as author of The Heart Goes Last but her concerns throughout have been with the tensions between determinism and free will. Stan ‘shouldn’t have let himself be caged in here, walled off from freedom. But what does freedom mean any more? And who had caged him and walled him off? He’d done it himself.’ Charmaine ‘had made the most of herself. She’d majored in Gerontology and Play Therapy, because Grandma Win said that way she’d covered both ends, and she had empathy and a special gift for helping people. She’s got her degree. Not that it makes any difference now’. By choosing to end the novel on Charmaine’s question, Atwood hands ownership of the perennial free will v determinism debate back to the reader.
It is possible to think of types of endings – the denouement, the false ending, epilogue, the postscript but perhaps there are really only two – the neat, tidy, all decided for the reader, and the messy, ambiguous, open for the reader to decide. In The Art of Fiction David Lodge holds up Jane Austen is ‘the provider of emphatically “closed” endings’ and Henry James as the ‘pioneer of inconclusive endings’; while both recognised that the ‘most satisfying endings still leave us wanting to know more’. Austen set the benchmarks for the Victorian novelists who followed her. James made an early turn to the modernist style. The modernist novel eschews the completeness and finality promoted by Aristotle in Poetics, often leaving blank the final scene. Contrast, for instance, the unravelling and retying of all the loose ends attempted by Sahota’s Victorian-style Epilogue in The Year of the Runaways with the open approach of Moshin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. For Hamid, the ending is determined by time; the fading light, the closing café, the walk back to the tourist’s hotel in the company of his interlocutor. The novel’s tension has been building around two questions – are these two people antagonists in the ‘war on terror,’ and will one shoot the other? Neither question is answered by the final words. As with Atwood, it is the reader who has to write the final page and reflect on how the particulars of the story might be generalised.
A case can be made for the modernist open ending conforming to the Aristotelian ideal on at least two accounts, that of plot unity and of the necessity for the conclusion to ‘arise out of the plot itself’. James, writing about his open ending of The Portrait of a Lady, insisted: ‘What I have done has that unity’. And the opening lines of The Reluctant Fundamentalist: ‘Excuse me, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you’, in which the first-person narrator seeks to allay fears and create trust, are echoed in the final lines where the issue of trust and reassurance are returned to like a composer returning to the opening key in the cycle of a symphony.
For Aristotle, the satisfaction, or beauty, of a well-told story lay in its order, where the end is that ‘which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it.’ For Aristotle there is a formula to be followed, plots of certain lengths and compositions, characters with particular traits and storylines that follow familiar patterns. Natural endings flow from clear beginnings. Themes unravel through the denouement to their conclusions.
Most narratives do establish from their beginning a route to ‘an apt and satisfying conclusion’ but a reader’s sense of a ‘proper’ ending is highly variable.
The open ending, as James foresaw, risks the reader’s charge that the novel ‘is not finished’; a charge particularly apt perhaps in genres reliant on completed plotlines. After all, an Agatha Christie ‘whodunnit’ where the murderer is never revealed is unlikely to feel complete.
The Danish existentialist writer and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that while it was well understood that we make sense of life by looking backward, it is too little appreciated that we actually have live life forward. Individually, we can be weighed down a self-constructed sense that we are who we are today due to who we became yesterday, and deny our freedom to choose a different way forward. Collectively, we claim we are trapped by our crowded past rather than recognise we are liberated by our potential futures. Like Godwin and Kafka, we write our endings first.
And the collective approach matters. The open ending, the freedom to choose from all possibilities for the future, is not a licence for selfishness. As Simone de Beauvoir suggested in The Ethics of Ambiguity: ‘To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.’ And she went on: ‘In setting up its ends, freedom must put them in parentheses, confront them at each moment with that absolute end which it itself constitutes, and contest, in its own name, the means it uses to win itself.’
As the writer John Berger suggested there must be space left free for the reader to apply their aesthetic imagination to their own ending.
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