Friday, June 3, 2011

The Nature of the End

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.

C. Carmody


  1. Such an appropriate post for the end of the class... =(

    Very good post! I was also struck by the discussion in class about “good” endings. When we talk about what makes an ending “good” or “bad”, I do agree that it is dependent on the reaction of the reader, like you said. I also think, however, that most of the time that reaction and that opinion can only be maintained inside the readers. If I say “oh, LotR had a good ending” (which it DID!) or “That ending was so bad,” that will only be my opinion; there will always be someone who says otherwise. In books like this one, or in movies or anything like that, the fact of the matter is that the “ending” we see (the last words, images, scenes, etc.) is all that we get. The last scene with Sam, when he says “I’m back”, was Tolkien’s way of saying “This is it. YOU are back.” And we can cry or rant all we want (if it’s not to our liking) but it’s never going to be different, and it isn’t going to make the ending disappear or change. Every word, image, beginning and end of LotR makes it the masterpiece that we love and cherish; if it were any different, it wouldn’t be the same, and then where would we be?

    -Seleste M. =)

  2. I really like how you interpret Frederica’s relationship to love as parallel to the reader’s relationship to the story –it’s a facet that I didn’t catch and improves my opinion of a story that I otherwise did not like at all. Thanks for being awesome!

    I think, however, that Tolkien doesn’t wholly agree with Byatt on this issue. Whereas, as you say, Frederica can become totally removed from her experience of love so that she “is no longer ‘fused to someone else,’ [so] that she is ‘a separate being’” (Byatt 314), I think for Tolkien part of the purpose of stories is that, once you’ve heard them, you can’t totally remove yourself from them.

    I suppose it’s a difference in tone or attitude rather than a conflict of views –after all, Frederica herself is certainly affected by her past relationships, suggesting that Byatt and Tolkien agree on the lasting effects of love/stories. Byatt just seems so much more pessimistic about it; “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). Talk about depressing.


  3. I very much like the idea of the “art form in fragments.” Thinking about this topic of “good” endings I’ve realized that it’s something that I’m very picky about. Nothing bothered me so much as a “bad” ending. However, this class has definitely gotten me to realize that what I generally consider to be a good or a bad ending is very strongly based on what I want in that ending rather than any consideration for what an ending actually needs to be. In fact, realistically, I feel like a fragmented ending can be much more true to life, and in that way “good” than the sort of endings we like in our stories, with everything nicely tied up and explained.
    In that line of thinking, I was reminded of a quote from the book Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde: “’ If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Overlong, detailed to the point of distraction, and ultimately, without a major resolution.’” Which I think is very true, real “endings” are really just a collection of fragmentary details which we, as humans, try very hard to make some meaning out of because we find it frustrating and unfulfilling otherwise. Yet, the characters from Something Rotten go on to speculate that all of those things are exactly what we love about the real world. What would it be like if life actually followed the pattern of most stories? Everything happens, and when it comes to an end, everything is neatly resolved and we all live happily ever after. Except… “happily ever after” sounds pretty boring to me.

  4. Gah, apologies, above comment was from Ian Goller.

  5. I believe that in class on Wednesday, the idea that people do not want “realistic” or “lifelike” stories and endings was discussed, that people don’t want the stories to just end, characters going their separate ways, the narrative ending. It seems what we are looking for is a sort of “going for broke” ending, elaborate and showy, a definite stopping place. And yet, were we to get this type of an ending from Tolkien, Lord of the Rings might best have ended in chapter three of book six on Mount Doom. How appropriate it would be if the book ended with Frodo saying, “So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is
    over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam” (LotR 947). It would have been a beautiful ending, conclusive, just after a climax. But would it be the ended we wanted? The way it actually ends, we get 84 more pages with friends, and another very moving ending. We see that, in fact, Frodo
    and Sam were not at the end of all things; even if they perished at the end of their journey, it could not be the end of all things, just as any ending is not the end of all things. Maybe people don’t want these “lifelike” endings where the
    action just stops because they remind us of impermanence, a scary subject, of
    course. Or maybe, at the risk of overly kind generalization, when we experience a “bad” ending, what we really have found is a good story, one which we would rather not see end. Thanks for a wonderful quarter!


  6. One of the beauties of The Lord of the Rings is its ending(s). In your post, you are quite concerned with how the end affects the story as a whole; in The Lord of the Rings, this issue is complicated by its multiplicity of endings, and, because an ending completes a story, it is also complicated, in a sense, by the multiplicity of stories. The ending a reader decides on for The Lord of the Rings, then, influences the story one is reading. If one views the destruction of the ring as the end, and the rest of it as epilogue, then the story one gets out of the books deals primarily with the quest of Frodo and Sam. Yet if one views the departure of the Elves from Middle-earth as the end of the story, then one begins to read the story as a larger part of the legendarium in its entirety, which includes the Silmarillion and the other tales we've been reading. In this way, the reader's acknowledgement of the true ending of the story--or maybe just the preferred one--does indeed alter the story itself, certainly changing the focus, but in some cases, maybe even changing the meaning, too.

    Ro Ca

  7. I like Ro Ca's point about the ending a reader chooses affecting what one gets out of Lord of the Rings as its focus, or place in Tolkien legendarium as a whole. I also think that the multiple endings really hit at part of the reason why (I, at least) often feeling that funny sort of happy disappointment at the end of a book. As long as a book doesn't end with some definite and conclusive "Happily ever after," there seems to be a feeling that the story is continuing on without us in that secondary world. I finish Lord of the Rings and want to keep hearing more, not because I am dissatisfied with what I have read, but because it seems that the characters keep living beyond the scope of what is written, and by the story ending, I am shut out from that. In a way, it's almost like the reason men fear death: they do not want to be shut off from the world they've grown to love and thrust into another world.

    I'm also now considering the original question from your post of what happens if a reader decides to change or not accept an ending of a book. Thinking back over things I have read, the first thing that comes to mind which, the first time I finished reading it, really upset me and made me wish it had ended differently was The Amber Spyglass (the final novel of Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy). Without spoiling the end for those of you who haven't read it, I'll just say that I found it really sad and upsetting, and wished it could have ended under happier circumstances. Still, though, I knew that trying to deceive myself into thinking that what I would have preferred to have happen was indeed the ending would never work. It would feel like corrupting the story, as though I were taking the truth of what happened as Pullman wrote it and just pretending. The story, though fictional, felt real, whereas I knew my preferred ending would always remain just fiction, since I had made it myself. In time, I grew to accept, and even sort of love the ending; I've realized why it must be the way Pullman wrote it, and I can't see it making much sense any other way. I think sometimes in order to accept an ending like that, we need to distance ourselves from our own emotions and consider what is right - maybe not pleasant, but RIGHT - for the story.

    -Catrina D.

  8. I think some very interesting claims are made in the first paragraph of this reflection. For example, you write, “a ‘good’ ending is dependent not on the intentions of the author, but on the reaction of reader.” You elaborate, “the reader would have to be allowed to determine the end of the story for it to ever be a truly ‘good’ ending.”

    As I understand it, this is a very expansive view of a reader’s power of interpretation, in which his (or her) judging an ending bad or incomplete is enough to make it so. But I wonder where the author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation intersect in your analysis—or if you think they do at all. Do you allow for the possibility that Leo (or someone in his position) might simply be wrong, and mistake a bad ending for a good one, or a good ending for a bad one? And what is the right amount—and right kind—of reader participation in the ending of the story? I think you rightly dwell on these concerns in your post, and conclude your post with several important questions of your own.

    I, too, am particularly concerned with the possibility that the wrong kind of participation in the ending of a story might lead a reader astray. Don Quixote is a famous example of this kind of interpretative error—according, anyways, to the most common interpretations of Cervantes’ book—where the wrong kind of desire to participate in the chivalric stories he loves drives him ‘insane’. What are the limits to our participation and shaping of the stories that matter to us?


  9. Wonderful post! I find myself simultaneously agreeing with you and wanting to expand on what a number of commenters have already said. As previously mentioned, I think it is important to consider that both the author and the reader must have some influence on the ending. We’ve often talked about a story as having artistic trinity, and through it the ability to exert its influence back on both readers and the author himself. Yet we’ve now introduced the ending as the crux of this very thing, and active manifestation of this trinity: both the author and the readers serve as subcreators, bringing many different stories into being which can have many different influences on the authors and subsequent readers. In some sense, however, this begs the question: is there any real ending?

    In Lord of the Rings, the multiplicity of endings is somewhat troublesome. In a sense, if feels like the afore-mentioned process (although we know Tolkien is the only author here). So, how can one story have multiple endings? In fact, how can any story have multiple endings? The reality, however, may be that any story one writes must have an end to it. Readers can be dissatisfied with the end and choose it to be different. Yet the author has the distinct privilege of defining the circumstances of the story. The reader-generated ending must still be in line with the original story. In this sense, perhaps none of us are actually capable of making a real ending to the story. Rather, the author brackets the story where he or she sees it fit, although the reader has the power to put this bracket earlier or expand it later in the story.

    So, where do we find a real ending? The fact is that even if an author ends his story, it is only a string in a larger tale. Because the reader can expand the story beyond what the author originally wrote, it seems the story can continue ad infinitum. This is what is at play in The Lord of the Rings. Each ending is simply an end to a strand, the end of some characters life or part in the tale. However, the story of Middle Earth goes on. So where is the real ending? Tolkien does us the honor of at least alluding to the ultimate end of the tale: the end of days.

    Max L.

  10. I love the work you do here in the third paragraph. I never noticed that and you pulled it together very neatly. Great work!

    One thing I'm not sure I agree completely with the the extent of power you have put in the hands of the reader to control the story. I see what you mean insofar as closing the book, etc, but I'm not so sure that 'in a dream' they would be able to change the story, per se. I guess on some level it depends on how one chooses to define stories. Is the story what exists on the printed page? In the author's head? Or is it purely the interpretation in the mind of the audience as they hear/read it and how they choose to let the author's words unfold in their imaginations?


  11. Excellent insight into the relationship that Byatt is exploring between Love and the reader, being in the story and the effects of questioning the story! How would this affect our reading of stories like the Lord of the Rings, I wonder? Frederica can change her story, at least, the one that she is living along (to borrow our beam metaphor), but are we as readers living along the story of the Ring--and if so, can we change it? Yes, it would seem, by writing from within Tolkien's story, but no, insofar as what Tolkien has written still stands, whatever we write. What I like about your meditation is that it raises exactly these questions: about the relationship between stories and life, reading and making decisions about what to do in our own lives.


  12. Oh my, what a question you end on. You make a very interesting analysis of the dependence of the story’s ending as largely a function of the reader. However I feel this might say up a binary between author’s ‘intention’ and reader’s ‘apprehension’ that may be more puzzling than helpful. It is tempting when trying to determine why something happens in a story to look at the intentions of the author—even though often the author is attempting only to craft an interesting story.
    This stance does not allow for the fact that the primary meaning of a text is generated in the moment that a reader comes in contact with the words and not before. In this sense, it makes no difference where or why the author decided to end the story, but rather how the reader apprehends the ending (the ending and not the author’s decision). The reader then has to apprehend the ending as in some way interior to the logic of the story or else to reject the story entirely. To change the ending as a reader is not to corrupt the story but to make an entirely different story. In this the author has no say of course, but it is also a natural consequence of the story being a story. Inevitable, where there is a reader involved.
    That said, this does little to address the issue of living stories, in which a story and ts many variants form a lineage or tradition.

    Mattías Darrow.