\r How Stories End

How Stories End

George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture, National University of Singapore, and Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

How a story comes to an end greatly influences both our emotional reactions to it and our understandings of its themes. In particular, what happens at the end leads us to interpret the moral, political, religious nature of the fictional world in which we have immersed ourselves. What does a story (and its author) imply if the villain gets away scot free? if the villain is punished? Can you think of a reason why an author who believes in morality and justice might have a bad person win or at least escape unpunished?

The ending of a story, as the questions above imply, makes the reader think and feel in a particular way. The ending is therefore one of the most artificial or unrealistic elements of the entire narrative, and if not done well can appear forced or fake. Lucas Corso, the cynical, semi-criminal book dealer who is the protagonist of a recent (1993) novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, rejects the idea that "they lived happily ever after" can ever be a convincing end to a story. His thoughts come as he thinks about his beloved who left him long before the novel begins:

Of all the universal lies she accepted unquestioningly, the happy ending was the most absurd. The hero and heroine lived happily ever after, and the ending seemed indisputable, definitive. No questions asked about how long love or happiness lasts in that "forever" that can be divided into lifetimes, years, months. Even days. Until the very end, their inevitable end, [she] refused to accept that the hero might have drowned two weeks later when his boat struck a reef in the Southern Hebrides. Or that the heroine was run over by a car three months later. Or that maybe everything turned out differently, in a thousand different ways: one of them had an affair, one of them became bitter or bored, one of them wanted to back out. Maybe nights full of tears, silence, and loneliness followed that screen kiss. Maybe cancer killed him before he was forty. Maybe she lived on and died in an old folks' home at the age of ninety. Maybe the handsome officer turned into a pathetic ruin, his wounds becoming hideous scars and his glorious battles forgotten by all. And maybe, old and defenseless, the hero and heroine suffered ordeals without the strength to fight or defend themselves, tossed this way and that by the storms of life, by stupidity, by cruelty, by the miserable human condition. [211]

Pérez-Reverte follows this rejection of fictional endings with a one-word paragraph: "Sometimes you frighten me, Lucas Corso." It is not clear -- purposefully so, one assumes -- if these are the words of Corso or Pérez-Reverte, the novelist who has to end his own story with this character. Do you think Corso gets "the girl"?

Victorian novelists often seem well aware of possibilities like those Corso describes, and they attempt to close novels in such a way that takes them into account. One method is to sum up the protagonist's entire future life, thus forestalling such unhappy turns of events; others, such as Great Expectations, appear to leave room for them. Do you know any Victorian works you could rewrite with an ending by Corso? Exactly how would it change the meaning of the novel if you could?

What happens if you apply Corso's approach to history and historiography? How does changing the point at which you end the narrative history -- the story of historical events -- affect tone and meaning? How, for example, does ending a history of the French Revolution after the fall of the Bastille, the Terror, and Napoleon give us three different stories and three different interpretations of this crucial event? How does the ending limit and define the event?

References

Pérez-Reverte, Arturo. The Club Dumas. Trans Sonia Soto. NY: Vintage, 1998.


Literary Techniques

Last modified 20 November 2001