The End

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The End

Fin. French and Saunders, one of the top British TV comedy duos from the 1980s and 1990s eponymous show, once did a parody of Ingmar Bergman films, in which they occupied an isolated clifftop house and moaned at one another about alienation, death and damnation. The skit — shot, naturally, in black and white — concludes as the two women look out at the dismal grey seascape and see the letters ’FIN’ appear amid the waves. One turns to the other and asks, ’What does it mean?’ As with all witticisms perhaps, amusement here depends on a force of recognition: ’fin’ is not a dorsal fin or an abbreviation for ’Finland’ but is immediately recognizable as a word (rather pretentiously taken from the French language) meaning ’The End’. And we all know what ’The End’ means. It’s obvious. Or is it? What is an end?

In ’Little Gidding’ (1942), T.S. Eliot observes that ’to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.’ Certainly when it comes to reflecting critically on our reading of a literary text, thinking about the end is a good way of starting. We can ask ourselves various questions: How does the text end? What effects does this ending have? Where does the text leave us as readers? More specifically, what kind of ending does the text have? Is it abrupt, surprising, inevitable, apocalyptic, bathetic? And why? All of these are questions that assume that the end or ending is indeed final, conclusive, closed. But what happens when we think about texts as having open endings? In what ways might the text be seen as having an ending that is haunting, ambiguous, suspenseful, unfinished, equivocal, undecidable? Inevitably perhaps, the end of a literary text is both obvious and not so obvious — in some senses closed, but in others open. In any case, a particularly helpful way of reflecting on the overall force of a literary text is to analyse the nature and impact of its ending.

To provide a typology or systematic account of different kinds of endings, in poems, plays, short stories and novels, would be an endless task, since every ending is different from every other and each calls on the reader to respond to this singularity. It may be a characteristic of many short stories that they end with a twist, and it may be a characteristic of many sonnets that they end with a rhyming couplet, but every short story and every sonnet still has to be thought about on its own terms. In this way we might take the final line of Adrienne Rich’s poem ’A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ (1970) to be emblematic: ’To do something very common, in my own way.’ Every poem, every literary work, must have an ending — however open, suspended or apparently non-conclusive — but each one has its own way of doing this ’very common’ thing.

More than this, every literary work is open to rereading, and the way in which its ending is appreciated or understood will vary, however imperceptibly, not only from one reader to another but from one reading to another. The idea of rereading can help us to clarify two important points about endings. First, to consider the end, to reflect critically on how a text ends and what effects it produces, is already to reread and, consequently, to recognize that there is no single end to a literary work: the end is always multiple. It is always possible to consider the end as happening in a number of different ways and in the light of more than one reading. Second, to reflect critically on how a text ends, and what impact it produces, is inevitably to think back, to think again and in effect to reread everything that has led up to this end. Thus it may be argued that, rather than being unusual or perverse, rereading is perhaps unavoidable. In this sense we never get to the end of a text.

Literary texts call for rereading in various ways.Elizabeth Taylor’s short story ’Mr Wharton’ (1965) is about a girl called Pat Provis who has left her home near Nottingham to work in London, and about her mother Hilda who insists on coming down to help her move into a new flat in the suburbs. Pat rather reluctantly puts up with her mother’s presence and begrudgingly accepts her maternal attentions and assistance. A significant topic of conversation, when Pat gets back from her day working as a secretary in an office, is how disgusting her boss, Mr Wharton, is. He is one of those sorts of men who (in Pat’s words) go out for lunch, ’eat and drink themselves stupid, and then go home and tell their wives what a hard day they’ve had’ (229). The story ends with Hilda Provis on the train back to Nottingham and her daughter returning home to the flat. Here is the twist:

In a positive deluge, Pat and Mr Wharton drove up to Number Twenty. He, too, had an umbrella, and held it carefully over her as they went down the garden path and round the side of the house.

’Excusez-moi,’ she said, stooping to get the key from under the dustbin.

’Could be a nice view on a nice day,’ he said.

’Could be,’ she agreed, putting the key in the door. (234)

The revelation that Pat and her boss are apparently having (or are about to begin having) an affair overturns the sense that we had been given that Pat finds Mr Wharton repulsive. The twist, then, calls for a rethinking or rereading of the text, even as it provides a final justification or clarification as to why the text should be entitled ’Mr Wharton’. It is also worth stressing, however, that while this is an apparently straightforward, even banal example of what Jeffrey Archer would call a story with ’a twist in the tale’, and while it ends in a clear and specific way, still the ending is open and multiple. It is not, for example, entirely clear how these two characters feel about one another or what kind of relationship is involved. More generally, this ending forces us to rethink everything in the story up to that point: we cannot help but revise our reading of the text. Finally, it is important to recognize that the end of Taylor’s text, like that of many literary works, is explicitly future-oriented. The words ’Could be’ mark an openness to the future in relation to the recounted time of the narrative but they also mark an openness of ending and of interpretation.

Other texts call for other kinds of thinking about ends and rereading. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ’The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798; revised 1817) ends with a description of the effect of the tale of the Ancient Mariner on the Wedding-Guest who has been forced to listen to it:

He went like one that hath been stunned,

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn. (ll.622—5)

The final stanzas of Coleridge’s poem constitute a sort of epilogue. We might reasonably ask ourselves what status such an epilogue has in relation to the idea of the end of a work: does the end come before the epilogue or is the epilogue itself the end? As in a number of Shakespeare’s plays (As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Tempest, for instance), the epilogue functions as a kind of supplement, and thus conforms to the paradoxical logic of both coming after the end and at the same time being the end. Such a supplement is paradoxical in that it both completes and adds to the story. More generally, such endings are self-referential: just as the epilogues to Shakespeare’s plays are explicitly about the fact that (as the King puts it, at the end of All’s Well That Ends Well) ’the play is done’, so the end of ’The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ specifically talks about the telling of the tale and the effect of this telling on its listener (’He went like one that hath been stunned / And is of sense forlorn’). The Mariner’s tale, in other words, has already ended. Or has it? These are the words that come after his tale is told:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns:

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;

I have strange power of speech;

That moment that his face I see,

I know the man that must hear me:

To him my tale I teach. (ll.582—90)

In a transfixing and haunting way, the tale of the Ancient Mariner both ends and does not end. The ’ghastly tale is told’ but what the tale tells is that it can never finally be told: it is at once the product and the articulation of an interminably recurring ’agony’. It is a tale about demonization, about being possessed by an ’agony’ and by ’strange power of speech’: it is a tale about its own telling and, in situating the reader in the position of the Wedding-Guest, it suggests that the end is only a beginning. Reading, or rereading, is interminable. From start to finish, reading is it: to recall the bizarre first word of Coleridge’s poem, ’It is an Ancient Mariner…’ (l.1).

In a very different fashion, Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) ends with the Creole female narrator (Bertha or, more correctly perhaps, Antoinette) preparing to set fire to the house in England belonging to the male narrator (the never specifically named Mr Rochester). Antoinette/Bertha waits for her guard, Grace Poole, to fall asleep:

I waited a long time after I heard her snore, then I got up, took the keys and unlocked the door. I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage. (124)

Rhys’s novel depends on the reader’s acknowledgement of an intertextual relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but it is only at the end that the two dramatically collide. One of the things that makes this final passage so extraordinary is the fact that it is not final. Rather, it leads us directly into another text, into the fire that engulfs Thornfield Hall and kills Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre. More fundamentally still, it puts a light to all our assumptions about Brontë’s novel, it calls on us to reread and rethink the whole of Jane Eyre and its place and significance in the (white, middle-class or aristocratic) English literary canon. With the end of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre can never be the same again.

The end of Wide Sargasso Sea is both an end and not an end. It is both closed and open. It is closed or conclusive in the sense that it leads us to the dramatic and terrible moment of setting fire to the house, and of the narrator in effect setting fire to herself. And it is open in the sense that it leads us into a radically different encounter with another text. Wide Sargasso Sea dislocates everything in Jane Eyre that marginalizes or silences the otherness of a non-white (in this case West Indian Creole) subject and everything that marginalizes or silences the otherness of madness. The ending of Rhys’s novel is also open in the sense that it calls for a rereading or for rereadings that are, in principle, limitless. What is involved here is a notion of intertextuality not only in its weak sense (Wide Sargasso Sea ’quotes’ or alludes to Jane Eyre) but also in the strong sense of a text’s strictly unbounded capacity for referring to or linking up with other texts. Thus the text of Wide Sargasso Sea is linked up not only with the text of Jane Eyre, for example, but with any and every other text that might be classified as representative of ’the traditional English novel’, with any and every other text that portrays what Gilbert and Gubar call ’the madwoman in the attic’, with any and every text that ends with fire or entails a holocaust, and so on. The end of Rhys’s text is open, above all perhaps, in the sense that it is future-oriented. The novel ends with a suspension of time: ’Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do.’ It leads us towards a terrible event, it leads us (in short) towards death, but it leaves us on the threshold — or rather, to recall the very last words of the text, it leaves us with suspended movement, in a ’dark passage’.

Jane Eyre itself ’ends’ with intertextuality. Specifically, it cites the end of what is probably the most intertextually pervasive book in Western culture, the Bible: ’Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22:20). The end of Jane Eyre, like the end of Wide Sargasso Sea, would then seem to confirm a sense that texts are inevitably linked up with other texts and that there is no simple end (or beginning) to any text. It may be, in fact, that to emphasize texts as unfinished and unfinishable is characteristically modern or, perhaps, postmodern. The writings of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett are often thought of as being especially representative of twentieth-century European literature. In this respect it should not seem surprising that Kafka’s novels are unfinished and that they are about experiencing the interminable, or that Beckett’s great trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) ends with the paradoxical words, ’I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ (418). Poststructuralism in particular challenges us to think critically about the ways in which the idea of the end is in various ways paradoxical. In this sense, it resists or questions what we might call ’teleological’ or ’end-directed’ thinking. It calls on us to acknowledge — rather than to deny or ignore, or explain so as to defuse, as more traditional literary criticism has done — the intractable complexities of aporia, suspense and the undecidable.

We can briefly illustrate this in terms of the endings of two very different twentieth-century novels, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (1938) and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Bowen’s magnificent novel ends with a housemaid called Matchett taking a taxi to an obscure hotel somewhere in Kensington, intending to collect and take home the heartbroken heroine of the novel, the 16-year-old orphan called Portia:

Matchett straightened her hat with both hands, gripped her bag more firmly, mounted the steps. Below the steps the grey road was all stucco and echoes — an occasional taxi, an occasional bus. Reflections of evening made unlit windows ghostly; lit lights showed drawing-rooms pallid and bare…

Through the glass door, Matchett saw lights, chairs, pillars — but there was no buttons, no one. She thought: ’Well, what a place!’ Ignoring the bell, because this place was public, she pushed on the brass knob with an air of authority. (318)

Bowen’s novel ends with this endless moment of suspense — before Matchett enters the hotel. In this way Bowen’s novel dramatizes the idea that the end of a text always figures a threshold, a place that is liminal and uncertain. Moreover it is a threshold which we can never go beyond: Matchett never goes into the hotel. Her intention (of collecting Portia) is never fulfilled.

Uncertainty or undecidability also marks the end of The Catcher in the Rye. Its final chapter is a kind of epilogue, which begins with Holden Caulfield declaring, ’That’s all I’m going to tell about’, and goes on to conclude:

D.B. [Holden’s brother] asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn’t know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. (220)

The ending of Salinger’s novel emphasizes that the narrator is in some kind of psychiatric institution but leaves in suspense the question of whether or not he will stay there or what will happen if he leaves. The final passage is equivocal and paradoxical: it suggests that the story or ’stuff’ is ’finished’ but that there is more ’to tell about’. We are presented not only with the narrator’s own powerful ambivalence (’I don’t know what I think’) but also with a sense of uncertainty as to whether or not we as readers have really been told anything or where we are being left. What kind of end is this? Is it an end?

Poststructuralism entails a kind of thinking that tries to proceed by putting the very idea of the end into question. ’End’ here involves not only the sense of ’conclusion’ (the end of a text, for instance) but also the teleological sense of ’goal’ and ’purpose’ (the goal or purpose of reading a text, for instance). As regards the sense of ’the end’ as ’the conclusion of the text’, we can see how this is problematic and even impossible: as we have been trying to make clear, intertextuality and rereading (or rereadability) mean that, in important respects, there is no end to any text. As regards the sense of ’the end’ as ’the goal’ or ’purpose’, poststructuralist thinking highlights what is paradoxical. At issue here is the very nature of human desire and the paradox of the idea that, as we argue in greater detail in Chapter 27, desire is endless. Jacques Derrida, for example, emphasizes that we cannot do without the notion of end as goal or purpose (or, in its Greek form, telos). Nor can we do without the idea of a fulfilment or plenitude of desire. As he puts it: ’Plenitude is the end (the goal), but were it attained, it would be the end (death)’ (Derrida 1988, 129).

The poetry of John Ashbery is suggestive in this context. In a poem entitled ’Soonest Mended’ (1970), he writes:

To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau —

This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.

Part of what makes Ashbery’s poetry ’postmodern’ is that it repeatedly articulates the desire to ’step free at last’ but at the same time repeatedly ironizes, dislocates, writes off this gesture or ’ambition’. Ashbery has described his poems as being like dreams, and as texts for a reader to pick up, to start reading and put down again at whatever point she or he chooses: like dreams, Ashbery’s poems tend to give no coherent or comforting sense of how or why they end, and yet they also convey a strong sense of the desire and need to think in terms of ends.

In the end, of course, the end is death and, more generally perhaps, the end of the world. It is not surprising, in this respect, that Jane Eyre should end with a quotation from the end of the book which tells of the end of the world (’The Book of Revelation’ or, in Greek, ’The Apocalypse’). As Frank Kermode demonstrates, in his brief classic The Sense of an Ending (1967), ’the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world’ (Kermode 1967, 28). Thus, for example, the great systems of Western philosophy — such as Christianity and Marxism — make sense of the world by imagining a future in which the world is fundamentally different, in which our world has ended forever. Christianity and Marxism, then, engage with desires that can be called apocalyptic. Such desires are crucial, also, for an appreciation of literature. Literature offers at once an imaginative experiencing and a critical questioning of the end, and it does so in ways that can be both at once exhilarating and unnerving. Literary texts, and particularly the ends of literary texts, open on to the future. And as Derrida has observed: ’The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger’ (Derrida 1976, 5). The end is coming, this is it, it’s now, right now, any moment now.

Further reading

Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967) is a powerful and thought-provoking account of literature and what he sees as the human need for ends. For a remarkable novel that plays on the title and themes of Kermode’s book, see Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2012). Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1970) remains a standard and accessible work of reference for the apocalyptic nature of religious and political systems (especially Christianity and Nazism). For a more recent work with a theological inflection, John Collins, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (2014) offers a fine selection of essays on its topic, ranging from early Jewish and early Christian apocalypses to apocalypticism and contemporary popular culture. Jacques Derrida’s entire œuvre can be described as a sustained meditation on ’the end’: see, in particular, ’The Ends of Man’, in Margins of Philosophy (Derrida 1982), ’No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives)’ (1984), and ’Of an Apocalyptic Tone’ (Derrida 1992c). For a brilliant account of Derrida’s final writings in this context, see Michael Naas’s The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments (2015). The end of the world is doubtless always on the agenda. For a couple of engaging books on contemporary literature and culture in this context, see Elizabeth K. Rosen’s Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (2008) and Gemanà and Mousoutzanis, eds, Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World (2014). In recent years there has also been a striking shift towards thinking about literature and theory in a ’post-apocalyptic’ frame: see, for example, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013) and Terese Heffernan’s Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel (2014). On ’the end of the novel’ in the context of contemporary fiction, see Vermeulen (2015). On the way that poems end, see Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s classic study Poetic Closure (1968). Finally, see D.A. Miller, Narrative and its Discontents (1981), a fascinating book on the endings of traditional nineteenth-century novels. And then, to end yet again, see Peter Brooks’s remarkable cogitations on death, narrative and the end-of-the-story, in the essay ’Freud’s Masterplot’ (in Brooks 1984), and Garrett Stewart’s brilliant study of ending it all in fiction, Death Sentences (1984).