The last time we checked in on The New Yorker, someone was pontificating on why genre fiction by definition can’t be high art. Now someone else tells us why novels tend to have bad endings.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way and state that this basic premise is idiotic. Some novels have great endings; some novels have lousy endings. There is nothing inherent in the art form that makes it hard for Mark Twain, for example, to come up with a good ending for Huckleberry Finn (one of the article’s prime examples). Her basic explanation for this purported phenomenon has something to do with entropy and makes absolutely no sense to me. But instead of analyzing it, let me offer my own theory of why some endings are better than others.
Writers don’t start with entire plots; they start with ideas or images from which the plot emerges (usually with a lot of hard work). Sometimes the image has to do with the ending; sometimes it doesn’t. And the image tends to be what’s most vital, most deeply imagined, about the novel. I don’t know anything about the genesis of Huckleberry Finn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it started with Twain imagining a white boy and a black man floating down the Mississippi on a raft. This is worth a novel! But then you have to get them onto the raft, and you have to explain what happens to them afterwards, and none of that other stuff is quite as interesting. The image is the art; everything else is craft.
OK, enough of that. Thinking about endings made me want to re-read the best ending ever, which is the final few paragraphs of James Joyce’s The Dead. I can imagine Joyce constructing a story just to lead up to this moment, with Gabriel staring out the window at the snow, thinking of his wife’s lost lover. It’s an ending that makes your soul swoon softly, as it should in the presence of great art.
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.