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.