Endings are unavoidable. A text cannot go on forever and the author has to make a conscious decision of when and how it will end. With the end being the last thing we read it’s important to get it right; this is our final impression of the book. However, texts end in a variety of ways, so it’s hard to pinpoint just what an ending should do.
For a start, an author can choose to tie everything up or to avoid any conclusions. In the first instance, characters are handed their just desserts, every plotline has a conclusion and the author arrives at a full and satisfying end. This is what we want from a detective novel, we would feel cheated otherwise. It’s what Dickens does at the end of Bleak House; it is methodical and safe. However, when the excitement is over, it can feel tedious to have to systematically tie off every string. Moreover, that’s it. The end. Goodbye. That’s all folks. It hardly leaves room for any speculation on the reader’s part. It prevents the novel from lingering for long after the last page is turned.
In contrast, an ambiguous ending will haunt a reader for weeks. This can feel unconventional, interesting. The author can delight in their megalomaniacal power to frustrate their readers. Yet they deny the reader the reward deserved for reading to the very end. It can feel like a cop out for authors who fail to have Dickens’ level of sprawling yet simultaneously neat plotting. An open ending only works when it serves a function. Catch-22 ends with Yossarian finally embarking on an escape, but we are denied the knowledge of its success or failure. However, this puts the emphasis on the actual act of escaping. After trying repeatedly to find the frame of mind and method to flee; that he is finally escaping is the key.
Another choice an author must make is that of ‘sad versus happy ending’. A fairy-tale ‘happily ever after’ often feels false. Jane Eyre follows Jane through her tragic childhood and almost equally tragic love and yet ends happily, with that famous twee line: ‘Reader, I married him’. Is this doing justice to Jane’s struggle, or to the back-drop of moody moors and gothic houses? Jane inherits money, has children, and her husband’s blindness miraculously recovers. Is it all a little too easy? Or is it testament to Jane’s strength that she gets what she wants? It’s fiction after all; what Brontë says, goes. A sad ending can feel true to life, but can also be gratuitous and unnecessary. Hamlet, obviously, ends tragically. The assortment of bodies strewn across the stage is part of the spectacle, the catharsis, the drama. However, a sad ending does not always serve such an integral part of the story. The simple heart-breaking sadness of One Day by David Nicholls can leave one flat at the futility of life. It’s tempting to think that a sad ending adds poignancy and realism, but to suddenly introduce it at the very end does not always feel like a necessary continuation of what went before.
Another type of ending, is the ‘lap of honour’ ending. This is mostly found at the end of a series when fans are loyal and the author, perhaps, cannot let go quite yet. The action has finished – the ring is destroyed and Voldemort dead – yet we have ‘many partings’ to make. Tolkien finishes The Lord of the Rings with five chapters of relative peace. Rowling finishes the Harry Potter series with a section set ’19 years later’. It seems a fitting end to the reader’s journey, almost like a nice cup of tea after the action is over.
There is not always great scope for experimentation with the ending of a novel. It cannot end suddenly because the reader can see exactly how much is left. However, the author does have some control. In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières delays the lovers’ happy ending until they are old. It allows him to turn the focus of the novel away from the lovers and onto subsequent generations of family. It says that ‘life isn’t perfect’ without being completely deflating and upsetting. John Fowles experimented with the conventions of a novel by providing alternative endings to his book The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Fowles demonstrates the power of an ending to affect the perception of a work as a whole through the frustration caused to the reader by the lack of an ending. An ending is the final conclusion, confirming what the work is about, and when the reader is denied one, they have a greater freedom of interpretation.
Each of these endings serves a different function and one is not more effective than the others. The only real function an ending can have is to do justice to what came before it. All endings, by definition, follow a text: they cannot make a point on their own. Therefore an author must simply decide what point they want their work to make, and what idea they want to resonate in their reader’s head; this is where their novel should end.