Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The End. Or is it?

When we come to the end of a novel, film or trip, we are sometimes left with a feeling of loss or emptiness. Playwright, Eugene O'Neill, faced criticism for the ambiguous endings of his dramas. His response was to say that life sometimes ends on a comma.

First Edition Cover via wikipedia.org
Some endings can be frustrating, leading to endless speculation (pun intended :-D) and the result of that can be fan fiction, such as for Gone with the Wind, the ending of which led us to hope Margaret Mitchell intended a sequel. Or Twilight, that resulted in thousands of fellow travelers in the vampire sub genre, as well as other genre fiction. 

A drunken driver put an end to any hope of a sequel to Gone with the Wind and gave rise to many Gone with the Wind wannabes such as Scarlett and Rhett's People — neither of which have engendered the reader response of the iconic achievement of Margaret Mitchell. Her life ended on a comma as did Scarlett O'Hara's story. 

We know from our experience of the novel and her character  when Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler says After all, tomorrow is another day she will rise from this defeat. We do not have to know the details; we can imagine how she will get Rhett back once she has time to think at Tara.

Margaret Mitchell finished her tale. The lesson we gain and the conclusions we draw from reading Gone with the Wind are for us to discern. 
via wikipedia.org

Some of my favorite last lines of beloved novels have the same ambiguity, intentional or unintentional. 

For instance, at the end of The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler leaves us with: The spangles were old water spots, or maybe the markings of leaves, but for a moment Macon thought they were something else. They were so bright and festive, for a moment he thought they were confetti. 

This symbolizes a significant change in Macon's outlook on life and is the beginning, rather than the end, of his transformation. It is satisfying because, as in Scarlett's last words, we know the future will be different.

At the end of the novel Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, Emily Gitano tells her doubtful husband, “I also know whatever comes, David, we’ll handle it, all of us, but right now, I can’t think of anything better than telling your tenant to rent us that house for the weekend and watching you remove the door of that amazing shower and using tools to do it.”
    “I’d rather make a soufflĂ©. 

David has never used tools in his life, but he has learned to cook, a step toward his domestication from the predator Emily has come to depend upon, a sign he is willing to admit he is neither invincible nor alone. 

via Amazon
In her inspirational novel, Borrowed Light, Carla Kelly's heroine, Julia Darling, comes to terms with her future when she says to herself, I came to cook... cherishing a little girl in the snow, whose parents had stuffed scraps of scriptures in her shoes to keep her feet from freezing. Thanks to you, Mary Anne Hickman, I came to stay. 

This novel does have a sequel, Enduring Light, which I intend to read, if only to enjoy the company of the hero, Paul Otto. Even so, this book is sufficient in itself, because Julia's journey is complete.

With Wait a Lonely Lifetime, I chose to end on some ambiguity, but with a positive note: Sylviana ducked her head to look up into his glistening blue eyes, surprised to see that magic-place, world-of-wonder smile jump out of his soul. 'Nothing a meat locker of ice won't fix, ma'am.' 

I've been asked to write a sequel, to take Sylviana and Eric through the first years of their marriage, but for me and most readers who have read this novel, my characters have crossed their barriers and come to terms with the difficulties that raising teenage stepdaughters and marriage at a distance will bring in their future. 

Tying up all the loose ends of a story can be a tricky proposition. One of my favorite answers to this decision-making process comes from John Gould's foreword to Up Here in Maine by Gerald E. Lewis: Gerry was after the usual fatherly advice about publishing a book. I told him what I tell anybody, and have often, that litt-ree consummation comes when the pile is big enough and you send it to a publisher.


  1. Great post, Leigh. I like books that answer the main questions posed by the story, but are open-ended enough that I can imagine the characters going on to have a real life. You're right; it can be tricky to know exactly how to end a novel, what to spell out and what to leave to a reader's imagination.

    1. Thank you, Sandy. I'm never sure I want an ending set in concrete. Leaving something to the imagination can inspire great things.

  2. Hi Leigh--
    My least favorite books are those with ambiguous endings. I prefer happy endings. Sure some of my fav novels may not have a happy ending but at least they have a satisfying ending.

    1. I also like an HEA, Victoria, the assurance anyway. If I don't like the ending the author has provided, I've been known to invent my own. Thank you for commenting!