Spoiler Alert! I will discuss the ends of several books in this piece. In case you are the kind of reader who covers your ears and screams, “Don’t tell me the end!” when a book is discussed, I will list them for you: The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, and Gone with the Wind. There. You’ve been warned.
Lately I’ve been having an odd problem with a lot of novels. I read and enjoy them right up until about 20 pages from the end. And then I just can’t read them anymore.
I tried to fight this trend and force myself to finish the books, for professional reasons; it’s pretty hard to hand-sell a book by telling customers you read and enjoyed almost all of it. But it didn’t work.
Eventually, I gave up entirely and spent a couple of weeks watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. This made me start reading the book again, for probably at least the twentieth time. This didn’t exactly help my professional credibility either. In our bookstore, LOTR is a hard handsell.
So I felt this prickling in my conscience, like I should be reading something new and more saleable, but meanwhile I enjoyed the sensation of really liking reading so much that I stayed with it. Along the way, my old favorite helped me diagnose the problem I’d been having. The problem wasn’t in me, and it wasn’t exactly in the books either. The problem was the mismatch between those books I couldn’t finish and my life. Those books, I could tell, were heading straight for the Happy Ending with Bows on Top where Everything is Resolved, and that doesn’t match my experience of reality. Tolkien allowed me to see this because he didn’t write this way.
The ending of LOTR is puzzling or even confusing to some, and has been called “the longest denouement in history.” If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, I’ll just tell you that in a nutshell, when we get near the end of the story, it sure looks like a classic Happy Ending with Bows on Top. Frodo, the hero, has accomplished his Quest, meaning evil is destroyed and Middle-Earth and its people are safe, and there’s much celebrating and joy and singing and feasting and weddings and all the good stuff.
Except something odd is happening to our hero. He can’t be happy or content. Like so many heroes who return home from the front, Frodo is physically and spiritually injured beyond repair. Eventually, he leaves his home and friends behind and sails overseas to a sort of earthly paradise, where perhaps he can be healed. It’s one of the most poignant and bittersweet endings in literature, because it speaks a truth we can all feel. (This ending is so powerful that when I shared the movies with my husband, who hasn’t read the books, he actually cried out to Frodo in the last scene: “No! You shouldn’t leave!” and then later admitted, “It was nice to see him have some hope, though.)
The trouble with the classic happy ending is more light-heartedly acknowledged in another fantasy classic, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. The humorous and excellent film is now more well-known than the book. In the book, Goldman creates an imaginary ur-text for the novel. He claims the original story was written by an S. Morgenstern, but that he has abridged it down to just the “good parts” read to him by his grandpa in his childhood. Like other booksellers, I’ve had more than one customer ask me for the complete original text by S. Morgenstern; as far as I can tell, that text is a complete fabrication.
Everyone who’s seen the movie recalls the fairy-tale ending. The main characters have each gotten what they wanted: true love, revenge, and community. They gallop away from their foes on snow-white horses. The tale concludes with the classic line, “And they all lived happily ever after,” sealed with a kiss between the lovers, Wesley and Buttercup.
If you read the book, though, you discovered that Goldman throws you a curve ball. He says his grandpa always stopped at “happily ever after,” but that, as an adult, he read the complete text and found S. Morgenstern added a coda, explaining that was only until Buttercup’s horse lost a shoe, Inigo’s wound opened up again, and various other disasters ensued. And, Goldman claims, Morgenstern left it there.
There’s another classic that has such a frustrating ending some writers have not been able to resist the urge to resolve it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has a lot of problems we’re probably all aware of. But I still find it a powerful story with a very moving end. The heroine Scarlett’s husband, Rhett, leaves her with his famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” referring to what she’ll do next. Scarlett resolves to go back to Tara, her family’s land, and, with her indomitable spirit, tells herself she’ll get Rhett back, and that “tomorrow is another day.” How masterfully Mitchell leaves us hanging! We’ll never know if Scarlett makes a go of it at Tara, or gets Rhett back, or if she ever grows the hell up. But we do know her optimism is true: tomorrow is another day. We have the distinct sense Scarlett’s life goes on.
If authors do the unresolved ending well, I think the reader is usually somewhat frustrated. My customers often complain they didn’t like the end of a certain book because the author “leaves you hanging.” They seem to feel the author has done them a great wrong. Actually, the author did exactly what they meant to.
I would say these endings engage the reader more. We are invited to keep pondering the story and the characters. My husband and I discussed what we’d do in Frodo’s position: go or stay? I never read any of the sequels to GWTW because I’d rather try to imagine for myself what happens next. An imaginative person could easily write their own sequel to any of the three books I’ve mentioned, and it could go in any number of directions. This, too, is more like life: always unpredictable, always full of changes. That can be uncomfortable, but it’s also ripe with opportunity. Vive le unresolved ending!
Amanda MacNaughton is a bookseller at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond who is currently facing several unresolved situations in her own life. While these are more uncomfortable in life than in literature, she also feels intrigued by possibilities.