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If 2020 was a novel, it would be a tragedy with a bittersweet ending. Vaccines, like rays of light, are trying to break through, but clouds of rising cases remain thick and menacing.
As for fiction, it’s been said since Aristotle that the best endings are unexpected, yet inevitable. Aristotle’s own slightly staggering example was the tale of Mitys, a man who was murdered after winning an Olympic chariot race. Later, when the murderer was gazing upon a statue of Mitys and probably congratulating himself on getting away, it toppled on him, taking his life.
Shakespeare, for one, wasn’t bothered by such niceties. He typically ends his tragedies by killing the main characters and letting others take centre stage. As Malcolm says after getting rid of Macbeth: “So, thanks to all at once and to each one/Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.”
Of course, many novels also end with the deaths of their protagonists. Some of the most famous deal with women flouting social norms: consider Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Since these weren’t conventional marriage plots, and given 19th century straitjackets, what other future could the male authors have envisaged for them?
Some endings can be shocking yet apt because of careful foreshadowing and a growing sense of necessity. Others can be downbeat but fulfilling, with characters coming to grips with reality. The consummate Anita Desai did the former with Fire on the Mountain, and the latter with In Custody.
A type of ending frowned upon nowadays is the O. Henry-esque twist or reversal. Complexity and verisimilitude are more rewarding than surprise, even with novels that head towards revelations.
Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, for example, have embedded storylines that, at the end, make you question all that’s come before. Yet, it’s not simply because of this that the novels are memorable. It’s also the skill with which characters are shown to fight surly circumstance.
In literary critic Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, he writes that to make sense of our lives, “we need fictions of beginnings and fictions of ends, fictions which unite beginning and end and endow the interval between them with meaning”. Chekhov would have agreed with wanting to find meaning, but would have reservations about the notion of a neat, bracketed ending.
Instead, as writer David Jauss has observed, Chekhovian endings “merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict”. Chekhov himself commented on this in one of his letters: “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.”
At the end of his beloved The Lady with the Lapdog, for instance, two people having an affair without social sanction realise that the hard part is only just beginning. They now have to deal with the rest of the world and the consequences of their feelings for each other.
Such endings force readers to reflect and reconsider. They are hard to successfully pull off. In the last section of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway loses herself in a reverie brought about by news of Septimus’s suicide. Then, she returns to the party where her old friends Peter and Sally are waiting for her. Life and death; solitude and society; dreams and obligations: all tied up in a concluding sequence.
Though some endings clearly depict a characters’ transformation, they remain enigmatic in pleasing ways. In the last scene of R.K. Narayan’s The Guide, Raju says that he can sense the arrival of long-awaited rains in the hills, followed by the final words: “He sagged down.” Did the drought end? Did he survive? It’s up to us to form our own conclusions.
As for the last sentences of novels, that can be another can of worms. The best ones stay with you long after you finish the book, and some can even be said to sum up the entire enterprise.
Take the end of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “He loved Big Brother.” Just four words, but enough to send a chill down your spine. The last line of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby also remains resonant, especially during this annus horribilis: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Perhaps it would be appropriate at this point to consider the ending of one of the oldest texts known to us. In the epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero finally accepts that despite his efforts, he cannot escape the ills to which flesh is heir. He, too, is going to grow old and die someday. Gazing upon the walls of his capital city, he realises that the fruit of his deeds is all that will live on.