1 April 2021 Susannah

A Satisfactory Ending

A Satisfactory Ending

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.

Which books do you feel end poorly? I’d love to hear your suggestions, so please leave a comment.

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Featured image credit- Robin Dalton, photo by Natalie Martinez, from https://www.textpublishing.com.au/authors/robindalton

Comments (19)

  1. Diana Stagg

    cannot agree with Karen – Louis de Bernieres (captain corelli) short stories (Notwithstanding)
    will withstand any scrutiny. Please read.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have not read his short stories, but was so disappointed by the ending of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

  2. Jenny Gray

    I agree with Mary-Lou. When I finished reading Tim Winton’s “The Riders” I wanted tp throw the book across the room – I was so angry as the story was leading so well towards what I thought would be a great ending.
    Many of my friends hated the ending to his novel “Breath” but I found that particular ending to be quite natural and satisfactory for me.
    I also find this disappointment sometimes occurs in movies – you know the ones which finish with “and then he/she woke up”. Aaargh!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There’s such a sense of let down when a book you have been enjoying ends feebly.

  3. Malvina Yock

    I disagree with people who didn’t like the ending of ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. I thought it was perfect, with a touch of ambiguity to keep us intrigued. Ditto ‘The Goldfinch’, to be honest although I do like my endings satisfactory overall. If there is a finite series, eg. Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, then I understand running certain story lines unresolved through the end of some of the books. It makes people keen to read on. An example is the ‘In Death’ series by JD Robb. She solves the crimes (mostly) but keeps the relationship boiling on between Eve and Roarke. Otherwise, authors, apart from maybe some curiosities, do tie everything up!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree with you about liking the ending of The Goldfinch’, but I felt A Gentleman in Moscow ended so vaguely and I was really disappointed.
      Isn’t it fabulous that we all react so differently to books.

  4. Karen Ramrakha

    I agree about Captain Corelli and Oscar and Lucinda, and I haven’t read either author’s work since.

  5. Miland Joshi

    The idea of unsatisfying endings made think at once of Charles Dickens’ the Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I’m sure most if not all people who here have read. A relatively recent attempt to “complete” it is by David Madden, which I read some years ago. It did generate a few questions in my mind, such as whether Durdles could have found something interesting by his method of percussion.

    • Miland Joshi

      The idea of unsatisfying endings made me think at once of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I’m sure most people here will have read. A relatively recent attempt to “complete” it is by David Madden, which I read some years ago. It did generate a few questions in my mind, such as whether Durdles could have found something interesting by his method of percussion.

      • Susannah Fullerton

        I have read it and of course it will always be an unsatisfactory book because it was never finished. I have not read Madden’s completed version, but it sounds interesting – thanks.

      • Heather Batten

        I felt frustrated with the ending of Give With the Wind and Anna Karenina!! Such epic books to get through, I felt I deserved a resolution at the end!

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Isn’t Anna’s death under the train enough resolution? Yes, Gone with the Wind certianly leaves it open as to whether Scarlett ever gets Rhett back. Do you think she does?

          • Heather Batten

            I just felt like I’d suffered through so much, trying to maintain my support of Anna, that her incident with the train made me feel like I’d been taken advantage of!
            And I don’t think Rhett ever came back. What do you think??

  6. Susannah Fullerton

    Yes, I have also found that with Tim Winton’s novels – I need more resolution after hours of reading.

  7. Just about every Tim Winton novel. But he does it on purpose. He says life is often unresolved so why should a novel be any different. I love his work and consider him to be one of our best writers, however, I read to be given a different perspective to the life I live. And I read for entertainment and, yes, escape. I want a novel to resolve. I want a sense of completion by the end so I can put the book down with a satisfied sigh not a puzzled frown.

  8. Donna Fletcher Crow

    I adored Ia McEwan’s Atonement–such good characters and so evocative of a time period–especially since our daughter lived in Balham and i knew the tube stop and the story that McEwan recounts–but thought the ending confusing and weak–such a disappointment from such a great author.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree, Donna. It was such a wonderful book almost all the way through, and then it ended weakly. Your books always end well!!!

  9. Natalie Smith

    Completely agree about ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ – this was probably the first time I had felt so let down by a book. The ending of ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ also reeeaaally annoyed me.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Glad you agree about Capt Corelli – I felt sad for weeks about the feeble ending. I haven’t read Oscar and Lucinda – not sure I will now.

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