A chat with a good friend recently has left me thinking about books with unsatisfying endings. This friend had been reading The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader and commented that, while she generally enjoyed the book, she felt let down by its ending. When you have invested many hours in reading a book, you do want it to end in a satisfying way. Perhaps one of the reasons I love Victorian novels so much is that you usually get a final chapter which tells you what happened to all the characters – a wonderful summing up of lives and themes. Just think of the ending of Middlemarch where we are told who lives happily, when they die and what children they have. There’s a real sense of completeness about it. Whereas a weak ending leaves me feeling dissatisfied and somehow up-in-the-air.
So, what is it we want from the conclusion of a novel? Do we have to know what has actually happened, or is it good to have a sense of wondering (when Rhett Butler walks away from Scarlett and she vows that she will get him back, we never find out if she actually does)? Do we need a build-up to a climax, or can we leave the characters just getting on with ordinary life? James Joyce ends brilliantly with his “yes I said yes I will Yes”, but he has brought his characters to the end of a long day and so it’s a natural place to end his book. Some novels end superbly – the last lines of Wuthering Heights are so peaceful and glorious at the end of all the story’s turbulence, while The Great Gatsby’s themes all seem to be perfectly drawn together in its last sentence: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Emma’s ending is perfect with its “perfect happiness”. Some writers deliberately leave an ending open because they want readers to rush off and buy the sequel – Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels are like that, where a crime in one book is unsolved and carried through into the next. I find that annoying – I want my crimes solved in the book in which they occur. I think I need to end a novel without feeling that I still have unanswered questions – I want to know what happens, have a good sense of why it happened, and I need a ‘sense of an ending’ when I close the book. It is said that Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 40 times in his quest to get it exactly right.
A quick search on-line brought up books with unsatisfying endings – Great Expectations, A Gentleman in Moscow, Alice in Wonderland, Gone Girl, Where the Crawdads Sing, The Hunger Games trilogy, some of the Harry Potter novels, Little Women, The Goldfinch and Huckleberry Finn. I agree with some of those – Dickens himself knew that his changed ending to Pip’s story wasn’t what he had intended, while Twain’s brilliant novel ends in a mess, as if he’d just got sick of the story and rushed to its ending in whatever way he could. I loved Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and felt I was living there on that Greek island as I read, but the ending was feeble and left me with a sense of let-down from which I’ve never quite recovered.