All’s Well That Ends Well — Except When It Doesn’t

What makes a good ending to a novel? What makes a not so good ending? And when I say “ending” I mean a book’s last few chapters, or last chapter, or last page, or last paragraph, or even last line.

A novel’s conclusion is often what we remember most, so it’s obviously crucial to a work of fiction. If the ending isn’t satisfying and true to the novel, an excellent book becomes, well, almost excellent.

I’ll discuss this topic by citing specific novels and why their conclusions are or aren’t great — starting with those that end in a satisfying way. And I’ll try to avoid spoilers!

When one thinks of fine fiction finales, the first novel that often comes to mind is The Great Gatsby and its immortal last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” You don’t need me to explain why F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sentence works — it’s evocative, it says a lot about the human condition, and it’s written like a dream.

Among many other memorable last lines are “He loved Big Brother” (George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), and of course “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).

Moving away from last lines per se, another novel with a very satisfying conclusion is To Kill a Mockingbird. At first glance, it would seem that the 1960 book should end with the dramatic trial that features Atticus Finch trying against all odds to get innocent black man Tom Robinson acquitted by a racist white jury. But a lot happens after that — some of it hopeful and of a cosmic-justice nature. Perhaps Harper Lee was trying to show that change, while often glacially slow, was coming in the United States.

Staying in the American South, the final chapters of John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans-set A Confederacy of Dunces (which I read for the first time last week) are also satisfying in the way they depict major life changes happening to the various eccentric characters — who by then have pretty much morphed into individuals rather than hilarious stereotypes.

For The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck knew exactly what his closing scene would be before writing the novel that led up to it. Rose of Sharon’s encounter with a starving man mixes heartbreak and humanity in an astonishing way.

Moby-Dick‘s intense ending works superbly because of Herman Melville’s mighty prose and the foreshadowing in the novel that seems to augur nothing but that ending.

The same can be said for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which the ultimate fate of the town of Macondo seems as inevitable as the wind.

Jane Eyre has a conclusion that’s both tragic and romantic, and one can think of almost no other way Charlotte Bronte could have resolved the dilemmas of her two main protagonists while making them equal to each other and trusting of each other.

Henry James ends The American with the burning of a document and the reaction of the person who prematurely tossed it into the fireplace. A priceless moment.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (which I reread this month) and Jack London’s Martin Eden have similar conclusions that are shocking yet make total sense in the context of how the troubled protagonists are feeling in those novels.

There are also novels that tell disparate stories that don’t “come together” until the finish. When the meshing is done skillfully — as in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer — there’s a “wow” factor.

L.M. Montgomery’s final Anne of Green Gables chapters mix death, self-sacrifice inspired by gratitude, and the blossoming of a relationship in a fashion that’s not only very moving but sets the stage for the sequels to come. Making a novel sequel-ready is one way to create an effective ending.

Speaking of multiple-book properties, the last installment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series nears its conclusion with the riveting Battle of Hogwarts and final Harry/Voldemort standoff, but is followed by a clunky epilogue about the main characters’ future lives.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy almost ends with epic warfare and the ultra-dramatic scene at Mount Doom, but stretches the story a bit too long as Frodo and others return to “civilian” life.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is exquisite until the late appearance of Tom Sawyer turns things farcical when a more serious approach is warranted.

Mentioning Henry James again, The Europeans is an absorbing novel that abruptly ends with nearly everything summed up in too neat a bow.

Then there are mostly sunny books with sad conclusions that don’t seem right, and mostly sad books with sunny conclusions that also don’t seem right. The House of the Seven Gables has one of those scenarios (I’m trying to avoid a spoiler here) that reportedly happened when Nathaniel Hawthorne was persuaded to change the ending.

Of course, some novels have happy endings that are logical and organic to the story — and what’s not to like about that? But many of the best novels are too true to the troubled nature of human existence to offer happy-ending wish fulfillment. We may not like those depressing finales, but they often feel realistic and not insulting to our intelligence.

What are your favorite novels with conclusions that are satisfying or not so satisfying? What makes those endings work or not work? And do you agree or disagree with my takes on the novel finales I discussed?

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