The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Closure: The condition of finality and wholeness established at the end of a literary work or part thereof; alternatively, the process by which a work or part is brought to a fitting conclusion. Closure provides more than an ending; it provides the reader or audience with a sense of completeness. In narratives, the kind of ending that provides closure often involves the resolution of a conflict or revelation that lays to rest — satisfactorily if sometimes surprisingly — unanswered questions, such that the reader or audience no longer wonders what happens next.

As early as the fourth century B.C., ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized the importance of endings, arguing in the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.) that an artistic whole is “that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” with the end being “that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it.” Endings, however, are no simple matter; as novelist Henry James declared in the 1907 preface to his Künstlerroman titled Roderick Hudson (1875), “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Subsequently, in Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (1968), American literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith theorized that closure “allows the reader to be satisfied by the failure of continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing.”

Notably, not all works induce a sense of closure, or at least not one that most readers agree on. For instance, a meditative poem may end with the restatement of an unanswerable question. Similarly, some “open-ended” works contain linguistic or structural ambiguities that lead different readers or interpretive communities to different conclusions. Other works, particularly modernist and postmodernist texts such as Absurdist plays and the nouveau roman, resist or subvert the traditional imperative to “make sense,” deliberately flouting conventions including the quest for closure and inviting the reader’s active participation. In S / Z (1970), French structuralist, later poststructuralist, theorist Roland Barthes contrasted lisible (readerly) texts, which are more traditional and convention-bound, with experimental, scriptible (writerly) ones, which encourage or even demand the reader’s cocreative involvement. Subsequently, in Closure in the Novel (1981), American cultural critic Marianna Torgovnick emphasized that closure is a process, the “effective” test of which is the “honesty and the appropriateness of the ending’s relationship to beginning and middle, not the degree of finality or resolution achieved by the ending.”

While closure is typically used with reference to the ending or conclusion of a work, it may also apply to textual segments. Thus, each of the five parts of a play identified in Freytag’s Pyramid — the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe — comes to some degree of closure, with the last two parts bringing closure to the work as a whole. Similarly, chapters, paragraphs, and stanzas can themselves come to closure, as can sentences and poetic lines; for instance, the rhyming syllables in couplets create closure at the end of each pair of lines.

EXAMPLES: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818), about a haughty king of the ancient world who built a monument to his own power, concludes as follows:

Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This ending provides imagistic and thematic closure to the poem, suggesting that efforts by tyrants to immortalize themselves are pathetically doomed to failure.

In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813; adapted to film most recently in 2005), the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet to Fitzwilliam D’Arcy brings to closure a plot riddled with romantic, familial, and class-based differences. The ending of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) is an example of circularity, for it transports Mr. Ramsay and his children to the very lighthouse that the late Mrs. Ramsay had promised to take their son James to at the beginning of the book. The novel The Magus (1966) struck readers as being so open-ended that its author, John Fowles, revised the book in 1978 in part to achieve closure “less ambiguously.”

By contrast, Frank Stockton’s short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” (1882), in which a king forces his daughter’s lover to choose between doors that lead to a hungry tiger and a marriageable lady-in-waiting, invites its readers to provide closure. As the man struggles to make his decision, he spots his lover, the princess, who directs him toward one of the doors. The story ends as the man opens the door, leaving his fate — and whether the princess chose to save him by having him marry another woman — an open question. The children’s series “Choose Your Own Adventure” (1979—98; relaunched in 2005) provides a further twist on the idea of closure, situating young readers as protagonists who make choices about what actions to take — choices that can result in very different consequences and endings. Many digital games, such as Roblox (2006— ), allow players to choose their own action figures and adventures.

Serial television dramas achieve differing forms and degrees of closure. The show 24 (2001—10, 2014) is unusual in that each season covers a 24-hour period in real-time that comes to complete closure at the end of the season. More typically, serial dramas (such as The Wire [2002—08], Lost [2004—10], The Good Wife [2009—16], and Homeland [2011— ]) build an ongoing story not only from episode to episode but also across seasons, although some (e.g., Masters of Sex [2013—16]) are anachronous, making extensive use of flashback. By contrast, in dramas such as Law and Order (1990—2010) and CSI (2000—15), each episode is self-contained.