Two guests from afar.
I want to talk about “novel endings” but first a bit of history. Back in the nineties, I taught a course in Modernist Literature. Here’s the reading list.
- The Sun Also Rises Hemingway
- Ethan Frome Wharton
- 1984 Orwell
- The Trial Kafka
- Invisible Man Ellison
- Their Eyes Were Watching God Hurston
- The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald
While I don’t want to spoil a possible “first” reading of any of the above, I will repeat one student’s question before we started our final novel, The Great Gatsby. The young lady raised a weary hand and asked, “Is this another depressing story?”
I tried, half-heartedly, to evade the issue, but let’s face it, the Modernists weren’t into the “feel good about yourself” narrative. As it turns out, much of the Modernist harangue is still with us. We still hear from well-intentioned writers, Hemingway’s advice to “kill your darlings.” And publishers continuously echo Ezra Pound’s maxim: “Make it new!” And don’t forget Anton Chekhov’s famous command to “Show, don’t tell.” Finally, there is that lingering Modernist theme that REALITY is a stained, dirty note reminding us all that life sucks.
Even now, we receive tons of novels that deliver “gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tragic endings.” I usually steer away from them. I no longer need my heart broken or my gut wrenched. But I do enjoy novels that make me think or give me some insight into human nature—sans tragedy.
Novels chronicle struggle, the necessity to overcome some barrier to gain a desired state of being. Now we know that life is a relational experience: I am happy because I know what unhappiness is. The depth of your understanding of “happiness” may well depend upon your experience with unhappiness or misery. Your ability to research and/or empathize broadens this knowledge.
Beneath the lamp, you write and write. You intensify your protagonist’s struggle through a series of conflicts. Finally, thousands of words and hundreds of pages later, you arrive at the crossroads—the point of ultimate action, the climactic point. Now, something has to give, and you write your ending—happy with success or sad with failure.
The ending of your novel, I believe, has to do with your writer/audience relationship. Here’s two examples:
First, as a writer you compose with a strong desire to expose your readers to the wrongs of the world, but leaving them with a conquering/successful/fulfilled protagonist, that is to say, a “feel-good” novel that ends happily. Your goal as a novelist isn’t to lead your audience into a nightmare that deprives them of sleep for the next week or drives them into a three-day drinking binge. Indeed, you want to mitigate the horrors they already face as citizens of a cowardly, old world.
Second, as a writer, you perceive your goal as one similar to Kafka’s, who said the novel should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” That is to say, your novel liberates readers from their hide-bound comforts and forces them to face the terrible and difficult issues of our human existence. Your narrative ends with separation, confusion, terror and/or loss. You recognize the hard realities of life, and you want your readers to do the same.
The two above possible endings reflect self-vision. The first: you are a writer who stabilizes. You are an ever-shining beacon that guides the anxious reader through the storm and safely into port. The second: you are the writer who interrupts. You are the storm that roughly and without apology smashes the boat and tosses the hapless reader into the raging foam, into the swirling dark.
What are your thoughts blogger friends? What’s your preference: happy or tragic endings? How does it affect your own writing?
Now, here’s a happy ending–from my own back yard!