- Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms forty times. He considered happy endings, sad endings, and finally published a tragically evocative, bloody, devastating finale which consolidates everything he wished to convey in the rest of the book. This is what an ending should be. And Hemingway manages to do it despite writing like a five-year-old. So why are there so many good books with terrible endings?
- Ambiguous endings aren’t necessarily bad; in fact, they can be very effective. So can endings where everyone dies or things have gotten worse and there is absolutely no hope. Indeed, these endings often make comments about society or the human condition. Bad endings are the ones which invalidate the entire purpose of the novel. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult does this, so much so that they changed the ending for the film adaptation. So does Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Kath remains as complacent and indoctrinated as she was at the beginning of the book despite her journey of discovery.
- The End by Lemony Snicket was the greatest disappointment of my childhood. A Series of Unfortunate Events was wonderful, made great use of meta-narration and constructed such an intricate web of mystery that I was beside myself with curiosity to know how it all would work out. Yet absolutely nothing was answered. What was VFD? How were the Baudelaire parents killed? What did the spyglass mean? The End is not an end at all. It was a way out for an author who got in too deep and couldn’t solve his own mysteries.
- Other children’s books have a habit of making everything a little too perfect. The male and female protagonists of Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda were neatly paired off despite having absolutely no chemistry or interest in each other in any of the fourteen books. The characters of Harry Potter were similarly coupled and had children with terrible names, once again showing impressionable kids that the only way to be happy is to be part of a standard family unit. The Deathly Hallows was, as a whole, a disappointment because it was everything that everyone expected it to be. The trio goes questing. They find horcruxes. They go back to Hogwarts. There’s a big battle. Side characters die, main characters don’t (with a few very painful exceptions). Perhaps the populist fantasy genre is just not ready for subversion of tropes.
- What about canonical works? Do they do any better when it comes to satisfying closure? Well, not really. Pride and Prejudice is a commentary on the complexities of English society and the role of women within it. The ending, however, is disappointingly simple. It stops when Elizabeth and Darcy begin to understand each other and gain the opportunity to deepen their relationship in marriage. Austen herself was never married and this is often the reason given as to why her books end at the proposal.
- And then there are the endings with the wrong pairings. In Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, Christine chooses the boring Raoul over the sexy Phantom. In The Divine Comedy, Dante ends up with Beatrice while he is clearly in love with Vergil.
- But let us not forget the books with good endings— whether they are devastating or uplifting. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte ends with the recoupling of Cathy and Heathcliff in death and gives up hope that the next generation of lovers will not make the same mistakes (since they aren’t awful human beings like their parents). The mercy killing at the end of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men reaffirms what the novel was constantly hinting at – that the American Dream is a fallacy, and furthermore, ends with a beautifully circular structure in which the last chapter mirrors the first chapter. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald does a similar thing. Tensions build and culminate in a murder, and in a moment of peripeteia, Nick becomes aware of the superficiality of Eastern high society and leaves forever. Animal Farm by George Orwell completes its descent into utter corruption with one of the most chilling endings in English literature. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury ends with a glimmer of hope for humanity. The Monster at the End of This Book was Grover all along.
8. A good ending is not just a happy ending, nor is a bad ending an ending where everyone dies. Good endings challenge your perceptions or reaffirm what you believe in. They are the author’s final chance at getting their message across. Good endings give you book hangover, a melancholy state in which you can’t stop thinking about the story and feel the need to discuss the book with anyone who will listen. But most importantly, good endings give you feels. A good ending will render you angry, heartbroken, deliriously happy, or a confusing mix of all three in which leaves you curled up in your bed, sobbing into worn pages, because you loved the book so much.
Words By Prema Arasu
Art By Kate Prendergast