Why Does Nothing End Well?

Jan 13, 2014

Just before Christmas break, I finished teaching Till We Have Faces for the fourth time in eight years. I read the book aloud, in its entirety, to a class of just two students. Depending on my mood, when I am asked for the title of my favorite novel, I claim it is either Till We Have Faces or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Of the two, I know Orual far better than the Man or the Boy. Aside of reading Lewis’ last novel for class four times, I’ve probably read it that many times again on my own.

The class of two was captivated by the book, although, as we entered the two final chapters, their interest strayed and I worried. I worried that a sad suspicion which had originally struck me on my second read of the novel, many years ago, would finally be proved true on this reading. The ending of this book is not very good.

I could not blame the class for losing interest. For several hundred pages, Lewis slowly and finely reveals Orual to the reader, only before turning to reveal Orual to herself. Every paragraph reveals some minutely observed facet of Orual’s prejudice or behavior (or our own), and as pages pass, even her contradictions seem believably human. Her wants are both obvious and labyrinthine, consistent yet conflicted. She comes to deeply know her own evil, and yet I can think of no greater testimony to the generosity of Lewis’ anthropology than the ease with which any reader would forgive Orual, were they in a position to judge her.

But the delicate portrait collapses, in the last twenty pages or so, into a mystic menagerie of symbols that makes a bid for St John the Theologian, but probably land closer to something Carl Jung failed to publish. Granted, there are eagles and snakes, atonement and beauty. A great host of meaningful and Biblical things are trotted out in a grand dream, and we might find the whole redemptive history of mankind therein, or an analogy for the conversion of the soul from dark to light, or something eschatological, but, as with a Jackson Pollock painting, everything is smeared so broad and thick, it’s hard to tell where a mistake might have been made. My students slumped over, confused. What happened to the lovely human beings? They had been replaced by ciphers and letters.

Not that the end of Till We Have Faces makes much a difference to the greatness of the book, though. Truth be told, I find most endings unsatisfying, and not merely the endings of novels, but of records and movies and poetry, as well. I don’t say this as someone who is trying to be hard to please. It seems more a rational, metaphysical necessity that endings be lousy. I say most endings are lousy not as an intellectual, or as an academician, but as a human being. An average joe.  

This hardly makes me unusual. Most average joes are self-appointed experts on the subject of endings. Take films for example. If you don’t know what an “exposition” is, don’t know what denouement means, don’t what “rising action” is, can’t identify the archetypical “threshold guardian” in Star Wars, and can’t tell the difference between a three act film and a five act film, chances are good you still have an opinion about “the end” of a movie, which is really no less an aspect of its formal structure than any of the items just listed.  Endings are judged more intuitively than any other aspect of a story, and so we’re pickier and harder to please without even trying to be when it comes to endings. When we don’t like the ending, we often don’t know why, or we seem to apply strange standards of goodness everywhere else absent from life. I like an exciting day. I like an exciting movie. I like a day with bright colors. I like a movie with bright colors. But I would never complain that an exciting, colorful day “wrapped up a little too neatly,” or “ended predictably,” although those are common enough complaints about this or that movie ending. Endings are disappointing if they give us what we expect, or exactly what we want, or what we don’t want. Endings are bad if they close off all the storylines, or if they don’t close them off and leave the characters dangling. We complain less when the ending is strange than when the ending is predictable, and less still if there is some surprise in the end, but that surprise can ruin everything, too, especially if the surprise wraps everything up too neatly, as with the loathed (although misunderstood and falsely maligned) deus ex machina.  

Why are most endings bad? E.M. Forster blames the author. In Aspects of the Novel, he writes, "In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.” Which is as much to say the average novelist turns into Martha setting the table when he ought to be Mary talking with Jesus when it all gets close to the back cover. Forster’s conception of the plot seems a touch materialistic, granted, but his contention that there aren’t enough characters, people, human beings at the end of many novels rings true even of the best.

Perhaps endings are often disappointing because they are too powerful, and therefore too unwieldy. The last five minutes of a film can ruin it in a way five minutes in the middle rarely can do. Although, is the ending whatever happens in the last chapter? Whatever happens in the last five minutes? What is “the ending”? Any discussion of Huckleberry Finn, proprietor of the most notorious bad ending in the Western canon, necessarily leads to this question. If you read the book more than a decade back, you might remember “the end” of the book as the tedious rigmarole through which Tom and Huck needlessly drag Jim, effectively bringing the dignity, weight, and forward action of the plot, not to mention the development of the characters, to a screeching halt. You may not remember that said rigmarole comprises better than the final quarter of the book. Do all stories have endings, or do some stories simply stop, as Forster encourages? Does a story have to have an ending any more than it has to have a fourth act?  Or is the ending a kind of flinging intellection, a hurling of the plot beyond itself? If an ending is more than simply a final percentage of a story, then it seems possible some stories have no endings. The final sentence of Brett Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction is unfinished on the page (mid-thought, no period), although the act is calculated to reveal the circularity and desperation and lack of purpose in the characters. It’s a classic end, albeit by way of uncommon grammar. On the other hand, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both finish with wistful, sentimental reflections about aging and dying and purpose, but these reflections have been so often glanced or indulged in earlier pages, they only feel final in the end because nothing comes after them, because the thinning distance between your right thumb and index finger for the hour prior have prepared you for closure. If someone were reading these books to you, and were you unaware of their length, both might seem to end abruptly.  

Not all endings are lousy, obviously, although the good ones are anomalies; if art criticism were like modern science, we would simply issue a theory that “All endings are bad” and work around to explaining the badness of the apparently good ones later, or else argue that good endings were not actually endings.

In the lives of flesh and blood human beings, no story actually ends. Everyone carries on, even when they can no longer be seen. Materially, the characters pass out of existence. There are no more pages. However, most readers assume the characters continue to exist in spirit, or indelibly through impressions and speculations we cannot help from making when thinking of them. We do not think all the characters in a novel die immediately after the last page of the book anymore than we assume a person to whom we say “farewell” is dead once we have walked away and turned a corner. Human beings may pass in and out of our lives, but when they pass out of our lives, they still exist, just as characters continue to exist when novels are finished; absent from us, both real persons and written persons exist is realities and potentialities. Not even death ends the story of a real human life, though, for while a person may physically and materially be no more, yet they still exist as a soul, making decisions and experiencing good things or bad things speaking, learning. The end of a novel is like the end of a life, in this way. No more pages, no more flesh, and yet a certain, but unknown life indelibly flickers with possibilities in the imagination of those left behind.

A good ending must, in some way, essentially suggest eternality even while materially rejecting eternality. All stories must end, and yet not end. A good ending is a remarkable paradox. Suggesting the eternal is no mean task, but for those storytellers fully aware of the difficulty of endings, a very strange ending is often passed off as a fine mirror of the eternal. The problem with Till We Have Faces is not the strangeness of the closing chapters, but the loss of the characters to that strangeness. In and of itself, the ending should be the strangest aspect of a film, on one hand because every ending is unnatural and ultimately arbitrary, and on the other hand because every ending is also eschatological and therefore mysterious, unknowable. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia both own long and bizarre codas, but do not collapse into heaps of symbols. The characters are maintained. A.I. resides in that company of films which seem to never end, or rather it ends again and again, but while we often complain of movies with false endings, the false ending owns a certain metaphysical aptness. The false ending flaunts our own finitude. We have no idea what is coming next, and have little right to disappointment when our expectations are not met. How often have we happily believed some hated person was forever behind us, only to see that person resurface on the horizon of our own lives in a position of influence years later? How often have we believed the fire of an old love forever dead only to suffer unexpected pangs of nostalgia years later, brought on by a scent or song? We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us. The false ending also pays homage to the arbitrary nature of endings. What film or novel tells a story which would not become a little more lucid, a little more human, with just a little more time? Perhaps so many authors struggle in the way Forster suggests because they intuitively know there is no good reason to stop the narrative.

While I favor the false ending, and the strange ending, like everyone else, the surprise ending is what I hope to get. And not a surprise event in the end, but a surprise revelation about every event prior to itself. Psycho, for example, or David Fincher’s The Game, or The Usual Suspects, Planet of the Apes or Memento, but also Dostoyevsky’s “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” or Ian McEwan’s Atonement. If the false ending owns a metaphysical aptness, the surprise ending owns a theological aptness; when describing the last day in St Matthew’s Gospel, Christ seems to suggest that when the judgment comes, everyone will be shocked at how it shakes out. Christ is in our midst in ways we cannot expect, in ways that confound reason, and when He finally reveals to us where He was, and how we have always been mysteriously acting in and toward His presence, both damned and righteous alike are incredulous. “When did we see you naked or hungry?”    

While ending a film with the final frame still, frozen, has fallen out of vogue since the 1970s, what might have once been nothing more than a passing fashion also owns the same theological aptness as the surprise ending. Perhaps the most mystical aspect of painting, and that aspect which makes painting the most appropriate medium by which to convey Christ in art, is that a painting has neither beginning nor end. There is no chronology at work in a painting, no movement forward or backward. A still image reaches for the infinite in a way a moving image cannot. The final shot of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a glorious still, the Ram caught in a thicket of the eternal present, in the absurdity of his own impending death.    

So there are some good endings. Or perhaps there are simply better and worse ways of shuffling off the narrative coil. The better endings bend forward, bow us in reverence to something we cannot lift our heads to see, but not seeing is not ultimately satisfying. The curious parallels between the end of a story and the end of a life bring to mind David Bentley Hart’s essay on death for the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. Hart begins by scrutinizing the common atheist claim that religion was “invented” as a balm to ease the psychic pain which arose from contemplating death. In fact, few primitive religions allowed suppliants to escape pain after death; death remained mysterious, bleak and painful even for the pious. Hart suggests that religion brought death near, and made death part of a “sacred economy” wherein corpses were traded for crops. Death became an instrument, a tool, a useful thing. This all ended in Christianity, though. Hart writes:

…the Christian gospel deprives us of many of the most dependable sources of religious solace. Death, our immemorial antagonist, which religion had made familiar to us and even meaningful for us (at the cost of so much cultural labor and so many victims), has become a menacing stranger to us again, essentially meaningless, ultimately unjust. This undoubtedly robs us of the desperately needed comfort of a certain kind of spiritual complacency, an ease of conscience before the tragic immensity of fate and necessity, which has the power to grant us a very real respite from the turmoil and anguish of life. But we are no longer allowed to look upon death- our own, that of those we love, that of those to whom we are indifferent or whom we hate- as an expression of a higher cosmic justice or of a sacred economy. Rather, we are called to believe that sin and death are a ruinous distortion of creation, and that we can never be reconciled to the destruction upon which nature and history seem so inevitably to depend, nor consent to the verdicts that nature and history alike pronounce upon us or others. The moral vocation of the soul, in light of God’s judgment, has now become infinite; we are required to struggle not only in obedience to the rationality of cosmic of historical time, but in defiance of them and in absolute fidelity to an event that has inverted many of the most fundamental certainties of our existence. In a sense- the resurrection of Christ- understood as the revelation of God’s final judgment within time- calls humanity a second naiveté, a postreligious return to our most primordial intuition of death as something unnatural, obscene, and instrinsically evil, and a return consequently to our inextingsuihable disquiet before the power of death to interrupt our natural orientation toward an unlimited future.

As with the death of a man, so with the death of a story. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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