I was inspired by the discussion in class to do a more in depth analysis of the endings of stories. Several times in the readings, a concept was raised of the “good” ending, and I was curious to understand exactly what this could mean. When Frodo and Bilbo are in Rivendell, they start talking about Bilbo's story, and how Frodo ought to write the next one. Bilbo then inquires, “Have you thought of an ending?” (Tolkien 307). When Frodo says that he can only think of unhappy endings, Bilbo responds, “Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?” (Tolkien 307). This same issue gets raised in the Byatt readings, when Agatha ends the story without tying together all of the loose ends in the plot, and the children are all outraged. Leo says, “There are good ends and this isn't one, this isn't an end” (Byatt 13). The reason given for this response seems to be that “there was no satisfaction in the end of the story” (Byatt 12). This would seem to be suggesting, then, that a “good” ending is dependent not on the intentions of the author but on the reaction of the reader. Agatha tries to defend herself by explaining, “That is where I always meant it to end” (Byatt 12), but this fact makes not difference to the opinions of her listeners. Thus, by this definition, the reader would have to be allowed to determine the end of the story for it to ever be a truly “good” ending.
This could actually be the case, that a reader should determine the ending, as a reader seems to me to have the undeniable power to control the ending of a story. When Frodo and Sam are discussing how their story might be told by future generations, Frodo points out that “it is all too likely that some will say at this point: 'Shut the book now, dad; we don't want to read any more'” (Tolkien 364). Along this same line, in the Byatt reading, when Frederica is reading to Leo and she wants to stop because she thinks he is falling asleep, he is able to convince her to keep going. In both cases, the reader is able to stop reading wherever he or she wishes, thus creating a sort of alternate ending, though possibly only a temporary one. And when Frodo and Sam are on the slopes of Mount Doom, just after they have given up hope of survival, “in a dream, not knowing what fate had befallen them, the wanderers were lifted up and borne far away out of the darkness and the fire” (Tolkien 246). When I read this passage, it occurred to me that if a reader did not particularly like the ending to a given story, that reader might, “in a dream,” write their own ending that is more satisfactory to them.
But just because the reader is able to control the ending to a story, it does not necessarily mean that the reader should try to do so. In Byatt, Frederica is ruminating on the nature of Love, and she mentions offhand that “it is a made-up story, Love” (Byatt 14). This statement struck me, and I decided to take Frederica in relationship to Love as an analogy for the reader in relation to the story, for this seemed to me to be what that line was suggesting. When she is contemplating herself in relation to Nigel, she considers that she is no longer “fused to someone else,” that she is “a separate being” (Byatt 314). I imagined from this that the reader becomes one with the story, “fused” to it, as it were, while they are reading it, but afterward, when the story is over, the reader becomes a separate being again. The reader needs to enter into the story, but Frederica also realizes that “there was only an unreal moment's grace between the beginning of a love affair and this steady self-questioning about how and why and when it would end” (Byatt 14). This seems to suggest that while the reader is submerged in a story, if the reader then questions that story, tries to work it out for himself instead of accepting the story as the story, tries to manipulate it, then the reader loses that “Love” for the story just as Frederica starts to lose her love for her lover. This becomes even more clearly exemplified when she considers that she wants a strong man who can take care of her, but how her lover needs the same thing from her, and how this “saps from what [she] think[s] of as Love” (Byatt 14). The story is supposed to carry her away into another reality, and if she brings her own reality into the story, it corrupts the story and it can no longer have any efficacy as a story.
Bringing this back around to the concept of the “good” ending, Frederica has to consider why people try to connect to one another and why she does not feel this “desire and pursuit of the Whole” (Byatt 315). When these characters talk about the “good” ending, they seem to see it in this light of trying to create a Whole, of trying to connect all these different pieces in a satisfactory manner, and if they aren't connected, then it is not a proper ending. Frederica, though, seems to be of the opposite opinion when she comes to the conclusion that “there is an art form in [fragments], too. Things juxtaposed but divided, not yearning for fusion” (Byatt 315). She thinks that such an ending as the one to Agatha's story can be equally as effective as those that fall under the category of “good” endings. With this in mind, what does it do to the story if a reader decides to take a controversial ending and tries to transform it into a “good” ending? Does it lend the story new and further meaning, making it more resonant than before? Or does it corrupt the story, and so corrupt the reader as well? I couldn't really say one way or the other for certain.