The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Trevor Cribben Merrill

Closure conventionally denotes a satisfying sense of completion at the end of a literary work. The term is no mere synonym for “ending,” as a poem or novel can stop without providing closure. In other words, closure suggests not just the de facto endpoint of a literary text but some kind of relief or release. In popular psychology, it refers to a therapeutic resolution to trauma, a final stage in the grieving process. In The Sense of an Ending (1967), considered a seminal mid-century contribution to scholarly debates on closure, Frank Kermode argues that we need fictive ends to grasp time as something meaningful and human: there is an innate anthropological hunger for closure, yet at the same time a desire for peripeteia and surprise. We like our expectations to be thwarted before they are satisfied.

The word closure, as David Hult has noted, derives from the Latin clausura, a participial form of the verb claudere, “to shut or close.” This contrasts with the nominal form of the Germanic word “end,” suggesting that closure is an act rather than a thing, a process that generates ending rather than ending itself. Hult affirms that the word entered academic discourse in the early 1970s after critic Barbara Hernstein Smith used it in her book Poetic Closure (1968) to designate “the study of how poems end.” One way of defining the novel is to note that for it, this “how” does not go without saying. As Henry James observes in his preface to Roderick Hudson (1907), human relationships do not really end anywhere but keep flowing onward, and the novelist's task is to circumscribe them in such a way as to give the illusion of closure. E. M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel (1927) that the “inherent defect” of novels is their weak endings. Novelists should stop when they feel “muddled or bored” rather than falling back on hackneyed, conventional endings (marriage or death).

Aristotle's Poetics offers the benchmark theory of narrative closure. Plot is the “soul” of tragedy and haphazard episodes have no place in Aristotle's vision of drama. Even the most surprising reversals of fortune should appear to spring from necessary causes; the vulgar deus ex machina ending is to be avoided. Aristotle's ideas about plot structure have undoubtedly shaped our conception of the novel. In Fiction and the Shape of Belief (1980), Sheldon Sacks provides a definition of the novel worthy of a latter-day Aristotle: “A work organized so that it introduces characters, about whose fates we are made to care, in unstable relationships which are then further complicated until the complication is finally resolved by the removal of the represented instability.” Peter Brooks invokes Aristotle's notion of “recognition” in Reading for the Plot (1985) when he argues that we read present moments in anticipation of a final revelation that will confer retrospective meaning on the whole.

Yet the novel can arguably be defined as the genre that most stubbornly resists reduction to a prescriptive poetics, as Mikhail Bakhtin notes in “The Epic and the Novel” (1941). For Bakhtin, the novel is best understood in comparison to the epic, which turns toward a distant, national past and consolidates tradition rather than describing personal, everyday experience. In his view, the novel engages with the open-ended contemporary moment, which is “transitory” and “flowing” rather than fixed. These very features increase the need for clear structure: the novel's treatment of chaotic everyday life compels authors to seek formal boundaries within which to contain their unruly material. By contrast, the epic cares little for formal beginnings and can remain incomplete, although it could be argued that the return to Ithaca in the Homeric epic already represents a shift toward the novelistic register.

Theories of Closure

Novelists have concluded their works in so many different ways—including by leaving them unfinished—that it is hard to advance an overarching theory of novelistic closure, or even to produce a satisfying typology. Because there is no consensus about what form a novel should take, each new work is in some sense a reinvention of the genre.

One common closural scenario is conversion. In many novels, the hero rejects in extremis the very quest related in the narrative. Defeated, Don Quixote returns to his village, falls ill, and abruptly comes to his senses on his deathbed. The very banality of such endings has led some critics to dismiss them as insignificant appendages intended to appease religious censors or satisfy readers' expectations (see CENSORSHIP). For René Girard, this banality should be taken on the contrary as evidence of a common spiritual thread running through the novel's history. Don Quixote's deathbed return to sanity is a conversion romanesque (“novelistic conversion”). To write such a conclusion, novelists must first conquer pride. They then represent the hero's retreat from the world of pathological desire as death, sickness, or some other ego-shattering catastrophe. The conversion may take an explicitly Christian form, as in Dostoyevsky's Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866, Crime and Punishment)—Girard calls this “maximal conversion”—or it may have the shape of a religious experience without being explicitly defined as such, as in Gustave Flaubert or Stendhal (“minimal conversion”). The death and resurrection motif recurs in works by Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, Madame de Lafayette, Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, 1811 and Mansfield Park, 1814, offer striking instances of life-threatening illness followed by repentance), and Marcel Proust, among others.

Theoreticians have invented various typologies to account for the many specific means by which novelists clinch their plots. In Closure in the Novel (1981) Marianna Torgovnick identifies three basic strategies for achieving closure: circular endings (which recapitulate the beginning); parallel endings (which refer back to a series of points in the text); and tangential endings (which, eschewing closure, head off in a new direction). Some conclusions are epilogue summaries in which loose ends are tied up from a bird's-eye perspective. Others show climactic action unfolding before the reader's eyes. In La Clôture narrative (1985, Narrative closure), Armine Kotin Mortimer, for her part, makes reference to an almost cinematic technique that she calls “fading out,” a notable example of which is the conclusion of Balzac's Illusions perdues (1843, Lost Illusions) in which the Provincial arriviste Lucien rides off toward Paris with Carlos Herrera.

In all, Kotin Mortimer distinguishes five closural techniques: (1) the “ending-by-birth,” in which the work comes to term at the same time as its heroine; (2) the “artistic solution,” in which the narrator becomes an author; (3) the “tag line” (Rastignac's “À nous deux maintenant,” “it's between you and me now”) at the conclusion of Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1834, Father Goriot) would be an example of this; (4) the “arrival at the present,” one notable instance of which is the shift to the present tense at the end of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857); and (5) The “end as beginning,” illustrated by, among others, André Gide's Les faux-monnayeurs (1925, The Counterfeiters).

Much recent criticism, especially in the 1980s, has viewed closure with a skeptical eye. J. Hillis Miller reduces the question of closure to an aporia: it is ultimately impossible to put one's finger on the point separating complication from dénouement, because the two movements are inextricably interwoven, with the result that every “tying-up” of a given plot sequence opens the way for a new dénouement or “untying,” the whole cycle recurring in an endless and undecideable oscillation. D. A. Miller distinguishes the dynamic “narratable” from the static “non-narratable,” claiming that narrative inherently tends to subvert wholeness because it subjects transcendent desire to a chainlike series of horizontal displacements. For critic Murray Krieger, these attacks on closure derive from “abhorrence of a totalized system and fear of its repressive consequences,” while Armine Kotin Mortimer argues that the deconstruction of closure is symptomatic of an intellectual moment dominated by Derridean poststructuralism (see STRUCTURALISM).

Closure and the History of the Novel

In François Rabelais's Tiers livre (1546, Third Book), Panurge never finds a conclusive answer to the question of whether he should marry. More than a half-century later, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra lays his hero to rest in the second volume of Don Quixote (1615). Indebted to what Laurence Sterne called “Cervantick humour,” the eighteenth-century novel blithely accepts loose ends, or else deliberately plays with deferred resolution to comic purpose. There are many exceptions, of course: it could be said that the whole thrust of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) is the avoidance of wooing, until marriage is finally possible. Yet Pierre Marivaux's forays into the nascent novel genre were no less acclaimed in their time for being episodic and unfinished, while in Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759) digressive open-endedness becomes the joke on which the novel hinges. Writing of the eighteenth-century epistolary genre, Elizabeth J. MacArthur notes its tendency to elude the finality of fixed significations. She upbraids critics for reading apodictic morals into works such as Mariana Alcoforado's Lettres Portuguaises (1669, Portuguese Letters) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761, Julie, or, The New Héloïse). Even those conclusions in which characters marry or withdraw to convents may be little more than perfunctory nods to convention, allowing the narrative to continue should authorial whim or public demand make a sequel desirable.

The nineteenth century sees the genre come into its own both formally and thematically. Early in the century, Austen's novels attempt to maximize the reader's pleasure in the fulfilled desires of the heroine, leading her to happiness at the very moment satisfying closure seems out of reach. Jane Eyre's famous last chapter, beginning “Reader, I married him,” might be taken as emblematic of the nineteenth-century novel, which drives toward closure via marriage. Its essayistic passages on history notwithstanding, Tolstoy's Voyná i mir (1865—69, War and Peace) ends with the union of Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostova. Not all of the period's works conclude so happily. Indeed, some culminate in ominous, apocalyptic scenes of destruction. Even as it features a moving religious conversion, the conclusion of Dostoyevsky's Besy (1872, Demons) sees an entire village engulfed in anarchic violence. In Emile Zola's La Bête Humaine (1890, The Human Beast) the hero grapples with a rival and falls to his death while driving a train full of soldiers bound for the Franco-Prussian front.

In the twentieth century, Proust's À la Recherche du temps perdu (1913—27, Remembrance of Things Past) offers a vision of closure rooted in the writer's quest for inspiration: at the conclusion of the novel's seventh and final volume, after years mired in writer's block, the protagonist experiences a quasi-mystical illumination, at which point he decides to begin work on the very novel we have just finished reading, sending his readers back to square one. In this case, it seems that only making one's way through the novel a second time can provide full closure. The emergence of the procrastinating or blocked writer as a central character, in Proust or later in Thomas Bernhard, heralds an era of fraught or problematic closure, as writers increasingly thematize the elusive suture between the self that is narrated and the self that narrates (see NARRATOR). Titans of modern fiction such as Franz Kafka (1925, Der Prozeß, The Trial and 1926, Das Schloß, The Castle) and Robert Musil 1940—43 (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, The Man Without Qualities) leave their greatest works unfinished. Far from diminishing their stature, the lack of an ending contributes to our sense that these writers have heroically resisted the temptation of facile, timeworn means of resolution.

With postmodernism there emerges what might be called an “anxiety of closure,” the suspicion that every conceivable scenario has been tried and innovation is impossible. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, works such as Italo Calvino's Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler) and David Lodge's Small World (1988) make the best of the situation by wholeheartedly embracing it. These novels valorize open-endedness while explicitly evoking the pleasures of unsatisfied deferral for the reader. Lodge's decision to call his novel a “romance” is a nod to the Arthurian tradition, in which the pleasure of ending is deferred for the sustained (and exquisite) frustration of not ending. Meanwhile, in his novel Nesmrtelnost (1990, Immortality), Milan Kundera argues that dramatic tension is a curse because it transforms even the most beautiful and surprising moments of a text into mere stages on the way to resolution. Kundera's novels derive their internal coherence from a unifying existential theme (“immortality,” “identity,” “ignorance,” etc.) rather than from the traditional unities of time, place (see SPACE), and action (see PLOT). The novel has “closed” when the theme has been thoroughly explored, regardless of whether the loose ends of the characters' lives have been tied up. Finally, Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963, Hopscotch) leaves the reader to choose between moving sequentially through the novel or jumping from section to section according to an itinerary provided by the author. The latter route ends in an infinite loop between the last two chapters, blurring the distinction between closure and openness in unsettling fashion.

SEE ALSO: Comedy/Tragedy, Definitions of the Novel, Domestic Novel, Serialization, Story/Discourse.


1. Aristotle (1989), “ Poetics,” trans. M. E. Hubbard, in Classical Literary Criticism, ed. D.A. Russell and M. Winterbottom.

2. Booth, A., ed. (1993), Famous Last Words.

3. Brooks, P. (1985), Reading for the Plot.

4. Burke, K. (1959), “ On Catharsis, or Resolution,” Kenyon Review 21(3): 337—75.

5. Girard, R. (1965), Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Y. Freccero.

6. Hult, D. (1984), “ Editor's Preface,” special issue Yale French Studies 67: iii— vi.

7. Kermode, F. (1967), Sense of an Ending.

8. Krieger, M. (1989), Reopening of Closure.

9. MacArthur, E. J. (1990), Extravagant Narratives.

10. Miller, D.A. (1981), Narrative and Its Discontents.

11. Miller, J.H. (1978), “ The Problematic of Ending in Narrative,” special issue Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33(1): 3—7.

12. Mortimer, A.K. (1985), La Clôture narrative.

13. Richter, D. H. (1974), Fable's End.

14. Smith, B.H. (1968), Poetic Closure.

15. Torgovnick, M. (1981), Closure in the Novel.