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?