Immutability and the Endings of Stories

I’ve heard Peter Straub say the ending of one of his supernatural thrillers caused so much reader clamor to know what happened to one of the characters, he capitulated and added another chapter. Having just read his Mr. X, I think he must have meant that particular book, and the short final chapter that’s tacked on addresses but doesn’t answer the question his readers posed.

Two of my recent reads—Mr. X and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin—share the same mystery—who is the narrator? As we read along, who is telling us this story? In the end, Atwood answers the question, which the reader has perhaps suspected, but Straub raises it in that brief final chapter, calling into question everything that has gone before. If such a fundamental and seemingly straightforward narrative issue can be uncertain, how many of our other assumptions about “what’s going on” in a book are up for grabs?

It’s a testament to the writer’s ability to make us care about a story’s characters that sometimes we wrestle with these assumptions long after the last page, the last scene. No matter how many times I’ve seen West Side Story, I still hope unreasonably that Chino won’t appear with his gun. Reading Anna Karenina provokes the same reaction. Or Hamlet. But it is not to be. (One question resolved, anyway.)

At the last moment, Charles Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations, one of his best-known and most-read novels, with a scene that offered a happier prospect, but one probably less true to everything that went before. He made the change on the advice of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—a popular 19th c. author, best-known today, alas, for opening his novel Paul Clifford with “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the eponymous annual contest “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

What story’s ending would you change, if you could? What else would have to change to make your ending possible? And do you soon find yourself in a hopeless tangle of unintended consequences like poor Jake Epping trying to change events in Stephen King’s 11/22/63?

Endings and the Reader’s Imagination

“I wished it would never end.” How many times have readers said that as they closed their book with a sigh. I’ve caught myself reading slower and slower over the last few pages of a book I’ve loved, just to delay the inevitable!

For a class on Dickens I’m taking this fall, I just reread A Tale of Two Cities. At the end, the travelling coach carrying Lucie and her daughter, Doctor Manette, Mr. Lorry, and the unconscious Sidney Carton speeds away from Paris in its desperate escape. We know that the unconscious man is really Lucie’s husband Charles and that Carton has taken his place in the tumbrils headed for the guillotine. I waited in vain for identity of the slumbering man to be recognized, for Charles to wake up and realize he had been “recalled to life.”

But Dickens doesn’t give us that scene. He leaves us to imagine it. I can see amazement and joy mixing with horror and guilt when the realization finally comes to them, and they understand what Carton has done. What, in fact, he told Lucie he would do, some 200 pages earlier: “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.” I see Lucie’s misery, as she recognizes the implications of Carton’s vow and feel the unbearable weight of her promise to keep it secret.

My vision of that scene—and yours—is beyond the covers. Our own ending to solve and resolve.

Sunday we saw the new movie Argo. A lot in that movie takes place by inference. As in the real world, the participants don’t have complete information and neither does the viewer, though we have the benefit of some multiple perspectives. Glimpses of the treatment of the main body of hostages let us imagine the rest. Likewise, details of the escape of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, also in deadly peril, must be mostly created by the viewer.

Have you imagined final scenes involving the characters of stories you read, see, or listen to? Share!