Literary Works With Ambiguous Endings

There are novels with happy endings, which most readers love if the happiness doesn’t feel forced. Then there are novels with sad endings, which readers tolerate if those conclusions seem appropriate. And there are novels with endings somewhere in between — the subject of this blog post.

I kind of like ambiguous endings. Life is often like that, and those conclusions make you think — wondering about the fate of characters beyond a book’s last pages.

Of course, novels in a series often have non-closure endings — cliffhangers perhaps — to increase your desire to read the next book installment. But there are also stand-alone novels with far-from-definitive conclusions.

Take Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which I also discussed last week in a different context. While that novel has a mostly shipboard setting, there’s a relationship subplot between U.S. Navy guy Willie Keith and modestly successful nightclub singer May Wynn (born Marie Minotti). May grows to love Willie, and he’s enamored with her, but the Ivy League-educated/from-an-affluent-family Willie is snobbishly uncomfortable with May’s working-class origins, Italian-American ethnicity, and Catholicism. He eventually breaks up with May and then, after a near-death military experience on his boat, realizes how compatible they are. But May is in another relationship back home in New York City, and perhaps still not totally trusting of Willie’s feelings, so the book ends unresolved about whether they’ll have a future together. I was satisfied with that finish.

Another novel that interestingly dashes closure expectations is Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, in which a boy’s murder radically affects the lives of his surviving family — most notably his sister Harriet. Readers assume that Robin’s mystery death will be solved at the end, but it never is. I found that intriguing, and realistic in its way.

Then there’s John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which has a poignantly beautiful conclusion — yet it’s uncertain what will happen to the remnants of the Joad family as they try to survive broke, homeless, and weather-beaten in the 1930s California they had traveled to with high hopes.

Set just a few years after Steinbeck’s American masterpiece, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph features surgeon Ravic — who has fled the Nazis for Paris, where he ekes out a living, falls in love, and seeks revenge against a Gestapo man. As the heartbreaking novel concludes, it looks like Ravic might end up a German prisoner. Will he survive World War II? A reader has no idea.

The ending of Zadie Smith’s scintillating novel White Teeth is deliberately confusing and uncertain, with various scenarios posited for the future lives of its majority-immigrant cast. (Ms. Smith is pictured atop this blog post.)

Then there are novels with endings that are kind of ambiguous, but one figures things out on a closer reading or rereading. That’s the case with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, in which one is initially uncertain if Civil War soldier Inman dies or doesn’t die after his long, arduous journey to return to Ada.

Short stories can of course also have non-definitive endings. A prime example is Frank Stockton’s much-anthologized 1882 tale “The Lady or the Tiger?” — in which the on-trial lover of a king’s daughter has to choose between two doors: one with a ferocious tiger behind it and the other with a woman (not the king’s daughter) he would have to marry. He reaches for the door the (jealous?) daughter imperceptibly tells him to open, and the story ends there.

I’ll finish with a mention of the famous final scene from The Sopranos TV series in which the screen cuts to black as we wonder what happened or didn’t happen at the restaurant that Tony S. and other characters were in. (That restaurant — Holsten’s in Bloomfield, New Jersey — happens to be about a mile from my apartment in nearby Montclair.)

Your favorite fictional works with ambiguous endings?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s African-American population unfortunately decreasing — is here.

78 thoughts on “Literary Works With Ambiguous Endings

  1. I have to say the following novel is ambiguous from beginning to end: Henry James’s “The Turn Of The Screw” Everytime I think of it now, I recall the parody re: Hitler reacting to the ending. Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, SW! Yes, “The Turn of the Screw” has a LOT of ambiguity — and a number of Henry James’ other works have a good amount as well. It’s almost as if “Ambiguity” were his middle name. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse strike me as books with endings that are ambiguous and yet fully satisfying. And then there’s the endless debate about the two endings Dickens wrote for Great Expectations. I find the “chosen” one (the presumably happy one) more ambiguous — or at least more generative of mixed emotions — than most critics have averred.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Daedalus Lex! “…ambiguous and yet fully satisfying” — a very nice combination. 🙂 I’ve read Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, but unfortunately not the two books you mentioned.

      Maybe I once knew it, but I didn’t remember that “Great Expectations” had two endings!

      Great comment!

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  3. Interesting blog post, I myself used to feel annoyed and agitated by ambiguity in novels but whenever I write something I tend to finish it like that there’s something, I wouldn’t say mischievous, but rather definitive about an unfinished story. I think the prose comes to a standstill and the character or the moment comes alive.

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  4. Dave the nonfiction I am reading now is Becoming by Michelle Obama , oh what a book, feels like a Novel one likes Present Obama or not.
    Highly educated Michelle is an excellent writer. This has nothing to do with politics but her life from childhood.

    I am sure it ends with a happy ending but I have read about hundred pages. In the days of con don the book has feel good moments even if I read a few pages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you’re loving Michelle Obama’s book, bebe! Not sure how old she is when her memoir ends, but eventually becoming one of the most admired women in the world is certainly a happy ending. 🙂 Trump succeeding her husband? A disaster.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Trump’s presidency has been an object lesson in the grievous shortcomings of white men like myself, who right up to this week’s polling, are only about 51-49% opposed to Trump even after all the cruelties and idiocies and scandals that have been revealed over the course of his administration to date.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Again Dave..finally we are over the three days of polar vortex blast, fridget temperature, worried about Pomchi who could not even set her feet on the icy cold snow. What happens to the birds 🦅 and what not.
        Today it is a heat wave with temperature in 50s and sunny which is rare in here.
        Anyways I am not even half done with the book, what an amazing writing and what a book. Seems like reading a passionate novel. Reading about her parents and her wholesome family brings me back to my own.
        Anyways it continues….
        No wonder the book is in its 12 week as nyt’s best seller.

        Liked by 1 person

        • bebe, so glad the weather finally got warmer today. I’m sure your doggie is happy, too. Can totally understand her wanting no part of those icy temperatures. We finally gave Misty the cat a good outside walk today.

          Wonderful that you’re enjoying Michelle Obama’s book so much!

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  5. Ambiguous endings abound in two Italian detective series: The Brunetti series by Donna Leon, and the Montalbano series by Camilleri. It’s not as if the crimes aren’t solved by each novel’s end, it’s just that, quite often, the crimes point upward to people possessing forces of magnitude beyond the powers of the local police, who, despite their obvious involvement or approval, will go unpunished, and unaccused.

    The most entirely ambiguous ending I can think of is Pollyanna, a novel I never read. I did however, see the Hailey Mills movie by that name, and at an impressionable age. A few years ago, I saw it again, and was amazed to realize that, although the title character is a cliche for an adamantly irrepressible optimism, the ending of the tale is open-ended and not necessarily peppy. Pollyanna does possibly permanent and debilitating damage to her back, repair of which is beyond the local physicians, so she, to the accompaniment of a band and several people whose own attitudes she improved by example, is sent off by train to the big city, and hopefully, a successful operation which will restore her to good health. The movie ends as the train leaves the station— the viewer never learns the fate of Pollyanna.

    A pessimist might conclude she is crippled for the rest of her life– after all, the tale is set in the early 20th century, when medicine was largely aspirational whenever it was not damaging; an optimist might conclude her operation was an unalloyed success– but that seems a bit pollyannaish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great comment, jhNY!

      I saw the “Pollyanna” movie for the only time as a little kid, and thus have forgotten virtually all of it. But it sounds like the ending hits an ambiguity home run.

      And thanks for the mention of those two Italian detective series. Reminds me a bit of novels such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White,” in which higher-ups are much guiltier than the characters in somewhat lower positions we first think of as the main crooks.

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      • Oh my gosh, jhNY, say it’s not so, as I did remember the Pollyanna movie starring Haylee Mills, but I (as being Pollyannaish myself), thought she was perfect in the role as nothing would happen to her! I did enjoy the Brunetti mystery by Leon, though it’s one of those I move on to other series.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Mills and I have been an item since I saw her in my faraway youth; a few years ago, she and I ate together– sorta. My wife and I were dining in the same place she was. As we are each past 60, you may know the THRILL it was to see her in the flesh– though a little sad, as we seemed to be the only folks in the restaurant who knew who she was…and our obvious excitement was met by Mills’ gracious smile.

          I had read two Leon books about a decade ago, and did not love them, though there was nothing about them i specifically didn’t care for. But she has gotten very good within her series and in the last few months I’ve read three more. If you want to try again, I recommend “A Noble Radiance.”

          Liked by 1 person

            • Nice that you and your wife were in the same restaurant as Ms. Mills! There IS a thrill to that sort of thing. I saw Kate Mulgrew (Capt. Janeway in the “Star Trek: Voyager” TV series) in a Manhattan restaurant a decade or so ago, and it made my day and week.

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      • I’ve got a copy of “The Woman in White”, and have every intention of reading it– but the sheer size is daunting to me, and has been for the year+ since I acquired my copy. I’ve seen parts of the movie (Greenstreet as Fosco), and I am intrigued; therefore, I bought the book. But slimmer tomes keep rearing up twixt me and the Collins book!

        (I guess I am writing this down in hopes that, seeing it in print, I will have shamed myself into committing to the book.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hear you, jhNY. Long novels are daunting, and I get to them only occasionally myself. But if/when you do read it, you won’t be disappointed. A fabulous story/mystery, with great characters.

          No penalty for posting about reading it but not reading it. 🙂

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          • Hi Dave and jhNY,

            Wandering through some old posts, killing the last ten minutes of my working day, and I stumbled on this. jhNY – did your comment cause any commitment to beginning the book? If not, I heartily second Dave’s comments. It’s a long novel, but it doesn’t feel that way when you get into it. Collins’ settings swallowed me whole, and I absolutely did not want to escape. His female characters are some of the best that I’ve come across, and his boys weren’t bad either!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hi Sue, Yes, “The Woman in White” is SUCH a great novel, as your comment made the case for so well. And I agree that Wilkie Collins in that book was excellent at depicting female characters — especially Marian Halcombe. (In Collins’ “Armadale,” Lydia Gwilt is also incredibly memorable.)

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  6. Probably the least ambiguous endings of all are the great Jane Austen’s novels, because she always tied things up so neatly at the end of all her books, with very little explanation, e.g., she might have said, “And they lived happily after ever.” I think I read somewhere that she really didn’t know how to write love scenes, because she didn’t have the experience to do so. But it would have been interesting to read about what happened after the marriage, which she usually would have just a paragraph or so, or even sentences about.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A terrific point, Kat Lit. Jane Austen’s six novels all wrapped up rather neatly. I agree that it would have been very interesting for Austen to explore what happened after her characters’ marriage. If she had lived to old age, might she have written a sequel or two? Probably not… 🙂

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      • I think that having watched many productions/movies of all her books, I think they usually tried to wrap things up even neater than the novels, though I may be wrong about that. They all seem to blur in my memory, so pardon me if I misstate anything here. The ending of the great movie “Persuasion” has a clip of Anne and Capt. Wentworth on a ship going somewhere? The ending of the wonderful “Emma” production by A&E has the main characters enjoying a ball together, including Harriet and her husband, though I’m not sure Emma ever truly accepted Harriet, because her parentage wasn’t clear or suitable for a friendship with her. “Sense and Sensibility” (the movie written by Emma Thompson) ended with the two sisters having a double wedding, though that never happened in the book, or at least as I recall what happened at the end. I did love this movie because it and its music was glorious, though Emma Thompson was too old to play Elinor in my opinion (a terrific actor nonetheless, and her interactions with Hugh Grant were priceless). I think I’m over the time limit here (do we have one?), so I’ll sign out for now!

        Liked by 1 person

        • My message carrier, Zazu, says it’s much too cold here to go out in it, (-2 degrees), so I’m looking forward to the warming trend coming this week! We’ve been iced-in for quite a few days now, so hope that conditions change asap. I’m still trying to put my home in order after my renovations to my bathroom, but not having to go to work everyday helps significantly, so what’s the rush? I’ve been watching a few movies in the last couple of days of days, “Amadeus,” and “The Red Violin”: both have great soundtracks, as well as stories to tell.

          Liked by 1 person

          • SO cold. 😦 But at least temps will start to rise tomorrow, and it’s supposed to be in the 50s next week. Sorry you’ve been iced in.

            Nice that you don’t have to rush on renovations, though I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to have them finished!

            “Amadeus” is a terrific movie.

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        • You’re absolutely right, Kat Lit — screen adaptations of novels (and not only Austen’s, of course) often make things tidier at the end. Which usually also means happier, even if the novels’ endings are already happy.

          Thank you for the great sum-ups of various Austen screen adaptations’ endings!

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  7. Hi Dave,

    I don’t think I have a preference for happy endings over sad. I think an ending has to fit a story, and sometimes that just has to be sad. Especially if the story leading up to the ending was sad.

    Last week, I FINALLY finished Vikram Seth’s 1500 page “A Suitable Boy” and its ending is perfect for your blog this week. The novel opens with Lata’s sister getting married. There’s a little bit of uncertainty about the husband, but very quickly, the story is about Lata’s mother finding her a ‘suitable boy’ to get married to. The next 1500 pages are a combination of family drama, and politics, and racism, and love, and loss, and even a little bit of cricket. But the time span of the book is only a year, and I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough story for so many pages. And after meeting lots of different ‘suitable boys’, the one who Lata finally chose was kind of meh. There were other love stories that I got swept up in that didn’t really have satisfying endings, either happy or sad. I guess the ending wasn’t ambiguous as such, as it was pretty clear what was happening, but I found it all pretty disappointing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Your first paragraph absolutely nails it — “an ending has to fit a story.”

      Impressive that you read the 1,500-page “A Suitable Boy”! And a great plot summary by you! Sorry the novel had a number of disappointing aspects for you, especially after you obviously had to spend a long time with it. A long book needs an excellent payoff — a la “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

      Liked by 1 person

          • heard your name the other day
            Mentioned by someone in a casual way.
            She said she thought that you were looking great.
            A waiter passed by with a plate.
            She reached out for a sandwich, and your name
            Went back from where it came.

            But like a serious owlet I stood there,
            Staring in mid-air.
            I frowned, then followed her around
            To hear, just once more, that sirenic sound –
            Those consonants, those vowels – what a fool!
            I show more circumspection as a rule.

            I love you more than I can say.
            Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.
            I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
            Someday, I’m sure, it will.
            No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
            But when? But when?

            ~Vikram Seth

            Liked by 1 person

      • It was fantastic in places. Seth is obviously a talented writer, but I felt it was way longer than it needed to be. Length doesn’t normally put me off. As Dave said, “The Count of Monte Cristo” is well worth all the time you spend with it. “A Suitable Boy” felt somewhat self indulgent though. It was like Seth would just write whatever came into his head, and bad luck if it wasn’t remotely entertaining for the readers. I should stress though that when the story was gripping, it was VERY gripping.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The ending of “the Grapes of Wrath” is probably one of the most powerful I have ever read. It has always stuck with me even though I read the book years ago, so I was glad to see you mention that one. I just finished the book “the Clockmaker’s Daughter” by Kate Morton. The ending was good enough to leave me satisfied but there were still some things left up in the air to play with my imagination. I couldn’t decide if I liked that or not haha! But the book on the whole was very good and worth the read. If we’re counting movies here, one of my favorite movies of all time is “Sideways,” and the ending of that is definitely a bit of a cut off, left more up to your imagination and how you want it to end, so to speak.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! I agree about the ending of “The Grapes of Wrath.” So memorable and poignant. I forget if I mentioned this before, but apparently Steinbeck came up with that ending first, and then wrote the rest of the novel.

      A somewhat ambiguous yet satisfying ending (as in “The Clockmaker’s Daughter”) sounds like a perfect combination!

      Unfortunately, I never saw the movie “Sideways.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I just finished No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy., and I think its ending qualifies. Without spoiling anything, the 1st person narrator (most of the book is 3rd person) just stops talking and leaves the reader with a sense of sadness.

    As far as happy, sad, ambiguous, etc endings . . . . for me, as long as the ending makes sense or fits the story, I’m okay with it.

    And! As far as the Sopranos ending? I thought it was perfect! I binged watched the show as I never saw it live, so maybe that had an influence on my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, landmers! It has been about a decade since I read “No Country for Old Men,” but, from my memory, I definitely think the conclusion qualifies as an example for this topic. Not the only excellent Cormac McCarthy work that avoids a pat ending!

      And I agree that different novels “require” different endings (happy, sad, ambiguous) — and they all can work if done well and if appropriate to the book.

      Always interesting to binge-watch a show, or binge-read a book series! A whole other feeling from waiting for the next installment in real time!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The uncertainty of the ending of Michener’s “Caravans” was actually one of my favorite parts of the book. Ellen Jasper is a fascinating character who seemed able to destroy men without much effort, and I felt Mark — the narrator — dodged a major bullet when Ellen left the scene. But I’ve always wondered who her next victim was and what eventually happened to her!

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    • Thank you, Susan! That’s a really good example of a novel with an ambiguous ending. I loved “Caravans,” and agree that Ellen Jasper is an ultra-fascinating character. An especially non-conventional female protagonist given that the book was published in 1963 and set in 1940s Afghanistan. It IS very interesting to wonder what happened to her.

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  11. The most ambiguous ending I recall is from the novel “Her,” by Harriet Lane. The two main characters, Emma and Nina, speak in alternate chapters. Nina runs into Emma, someone she has had a grudge against for years, for what I thought was a very flimsy reason. Emma doesn’t recognize Nina, who insinuates herself into Emma’s life, including that of her young child’s. The ending has both of them running to Nina’s vacation swimming pool, Emma trying to save her son’s life, while Nina is trying to stop her from doing so. The ending, so to speak, literally stops in mid-sentence so who knows who won this, nor what happened to them at all. I think this is something I read from Nook, and I was about ready to call B&N to say I was missing the last pages of the novel I’d downloaded, when it finally dawned on me that this was the author’s intent from the beginning. So, while not a favorite ending it was the most infuriating

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Wow — that’s a terrific example of an ambiguous ending. When one wonders if the last pages of a novel are missing, that’s telling!

      You described “Her” excellently and intriguingly. I just looked up that novel on Google, and saw an eye-catching description of it as “the ultimate frenemy thriller.” Nice…

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      • As I was typing my comment, it struck me that Harriet Lane is awfully similar to Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Sayers. Then as for her two major characters, Emma of course is the title of one of Austen’s great novels. I was stumped by the name Nina for a while, then it occurred to me that Nina was the last four letters of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. This could be just coincidental, but I rather like my version of this as being planned by the author! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting, Kat Lit — might be coincidental and might not. Sounds like the latter. 🙂

          Some authors put a lot of weight behind the names of characters — also occasionally with significant initials (Jim Casy of “The Grapes of Wrath” is a Jesus Christ-like figure, Undine Spragg of Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” represents the worst of America, Martin Eden of Jack London’s “Martin Eden” is a very autobiographical “me” for London, etc.).

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          • I know you mentioned this before, but I was perplexed after reading Wharton’s novel how she came up with a name such as Undine for her main character. I don’t think there are many names starting with “U” — the only other one that immediately comes to mind is Ursula, which I only know from the villain in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and the actress Ursula Andress, the first Bond love interest (I think). I was almost going to say “Bond Girl” but I hate using the term “girl” for grown women.

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          • “Jim Casy of “The Grapes of Wrath” is a Jesus Christ-like figure”–

            Then there’s Joe Christmas from Faulkner’s “Light In August”, who, in keeping with the week’s theme, may or may not be a murderer.

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            • That’s right, jhNY! Another JC whose initials are no coincidence. Joe Christmas is a fascinating/memorable character. “Light In August” is my favorite Faulkner novel, though I’ve only read — or attempted to read — four of his books.

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  12. Ah, happy endings! One of my Russian emigre students told me last semester that she found the constant happy endings in American fiction and film to be unbearably cloying and unrealistic. Meanwhile, my American students are always shocked by the lack of obligatory happy endings in Russian film and fiction.

    Probably one of the most famous ambiguous endings in Russian literature is in Eugene Onegin, which Pushkin ends just as Tatyana’s husband is coming home while Eugene is on his knees confessing his love to her. This, Pushkin tells us, seems as good a place as any to end his novel.

    Another ending that might be considered ambiguous is in Uncle Vanya, which ends with Sonya’s “we will rest” speech. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elena, for those two examples of ambiguous conclusions!

      Interesting and I think accurate comparison between the endings in American vs. Russian fiction. Yes, many of the conclusions by U.S. authors are cloying and unrealistic; there’s a strangely optimistic strand in the American character despite the country giving its writers and other citizens TONS of things (awful politicians, virulent racism, shocking income inequality, etc.) to be depressed about.

      Of course, as you know, there are obviously some exceptions. For instance, the end of “Crime and Punishment” is kind of optimistic while the end of “The Great Gatsby” is rather melancholy.

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  13. I have mixed feelings about books with ambiguous endings. While it may feel uncomfortable to leave things open ended, it also reflects reality since all too often there is not a neat ending to situations in real life. I thought Inman died at the end of Cold Mountain – I don’t remember having any doubt about it when I read it, so the ambiguity was lost on me. Haha! Grapes of Wrath is one of my all time favorite novels, so not knowing how the Joad family fared in the long run did not detract from the story for me at all. Interesting column as always, Dave!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Molly! “I have mixed feelings about books with ambiguous endings” — drolly expressed. 🙂 I share those feelings. I often like ambiguous endings, or at least respect them, but they can be frustrating. And, yes, real-life situations are often ambiguous.

      Your reaction to the end of “Cold Mountain” was indeed logically accurate. I might have let some wishful thinking get in the way when I first read it, hoping that Inman’s incredibly long and difficult journey would have a happier conclusion. Of course, there was that child…

      “The Grapes of Wrath” is also one of my all-time favorite novels!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Interesting post, and I admit that I usually prefer happy, or at least satisfactory, endings. I enjoyed “The Landline” by Rainbow Rowell, but I believe that it ended with readers not knowing for sure what will happen with the main characters. Ira Levin’s book, “Stepford Wives” seemed to leave it up in the air whether the main character could escape her predicament, while the movie definitely inferred that she had been “turned.” As far as The Sopranos, I remember feeling very cheated by that ending after watching every single episode (some multiple times). In looking back, though, I can see why they might have chosen to do it that way. To have it end happily with everyone laughing and enjoying dinner didn’t really fit with the theme or atmosphere of the entire show. To have them all shot up in the ending scene didn’t really seem right, either, since we had gotten to kind of like some of these damaged characters:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Becky! I also like happy endings, if they feel earned, logical, etc. An example of that not happening is with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables,” in which the relatively upbeat conclusion seems out of sync with the rest of that great but gloomy novel.

      “The Landline” and “Stepford Wives” sound like excellent examples of endings that leave readers unsure!

      I was actually not a “Sopranos” watcher, but your mixed feelings about the show’s ending — frustration, yet sort of understanding the reason for the ending — make a lot of sense to me.

      Liked by 1 person

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