The New Yorker tells us why novels have bad endings (plus, the best ending ever!)

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.

Great Expectations and sad endings

Here we saw how Hemingway struggled with the ending to A Farewell to Arms. You need to get the ending right.

For some novels, the most important decision will be whether the ending is sad or happy.  You’d think this decision would flow inevitably from the story you’re telling.  In some cases, that’s true.  In a genre private eye novel, the private eye will crack the case.  In a genre romance, girl will get boy.  In mainstream Hollywood movies nowadays, you’re pretty much guaranteed a happy ending; otherwise the movie wouldn’t have gotten made.  But for lots of novels, the ending balances on a knife edge between life and death, marriage and loneliness, joy and despair.  That, in fact, is what keeps the reader reading.  The author gets to make the call.

The ending to Pontiff caused me the most problems in this regard.  Should girl get boy, when boy is a priest?  If so, does that qualify as a happy ending?  In any case, did the ending work–was it true to the story?  Lemme know! (There is another sad aspect of the story that involves the death of a character at the climax, and I really didn’t want to do it.  But my plot gave me no choice.)

King Lear‘s ending is so damn sad that even critics like Samuel Johnson thought it was unbearable. For 300 years, from the Restoration to the mid-nineteenth century, the only version performed was a revision by Nahum Tate in which Cordelia survived and married Edgar. We have seen evidence that Shakespeare revised the play, but the revisions, if anything, made the play’s ending sadder.

The most celebrated case of revising an ending to make it happier was Great Expectations.

Dickens’ original ending was bleak. The narrator, Pip, who has been in love with the unattainable Estella since he first laid eyes on her, meets her on the street many years later:

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness.

I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again — in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip — when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

Too sad! One of his friends–maybe Wilkie Collins–complained.  So Dickens tried again.  He has Pip and Estella meet on the grounds of Miss Havisham’s ruined house, where they had first met many years ago:

“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench. “And will continue friends apart”. I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Too happy!  That’s what lots of critics have complained.  Shaw said: The novel “is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

Well, I dunno.  A novel can be unhappy throughout, yet achieve its happiness at the end.  Characters grow; characters change.  And there’s no question that the revised ending is better written than the original, which is awfully flat.  Most modern editions include both endings, I think, like a DVD where you can choose the author’s cut.

Dickens himself seemed happy with the revision.  He said: “I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”

You be the judge.  Also, see the David Lean movie, with John Mills as Pip and Jean Simmons as the ethereally beautiful young Estella.

Hemingway tries to get the words right

Apropos of these post about revising and rewriting, it turns out the Simon & Schuster has released a new edition of A Farewell to Arms that includes all Hemingway’s alternate endings.  He claimed that he wrote the ending 39 times before he was satisfied.  The basic issue, he famously said, was “getting the words right.” Turns out that the actual number of endings was probably more like 47.

Here’s the first page of the manuscript, which is stored, with the rest of Hemingway’s papers, at the JFK Library in Dorchester, MA, about ten miles away from where I am sitting.

Endings are hard because they are so important. They don’t need to sum up what the novel was all about, but they control what readers are going to be feeling when they put the book down.

For close readers of Hemingway the endings are a fascinating glimpse into how the novel could have concluded on a different note, sometimes more blunt and sometimes more optimistic. And since modern authors tend to produce their work on computers, the new edition also serves as an artifact of a bygone craft, with handwritten notes and long passages crossed out, giving readers a sense of an author’s process.

One of the endings was suggested by Fitzgerald.  Speaking of Fitzgerald, has anyone written a better ending than the one he wrote for The Great Gatsby?

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.