Guiding Your Reader’s Eye:
The Choreography of Perception, Part Four
“Well, good-by,” said Alan, and held out his left hand.
“Good-by,” said I, and gave the hand a little grasp, and went down the hill.
Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he
was in my view did I take one glance back at the friend I was leaving.
— Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped
Are there any rules, I wonder, as to how our characters exit—take their leave from our works of fiction?
Probably not. There are, though, certain dynamics at play—dynamics having to do with the way a work of fiction ends that pertain to the final appearance our characters might make, either singly or collectively, directly or indirectly. We bear in mind, for instance, the myriad of tropes writers use to dismiss their characters, which tropes, beyond those that are purely literary, reflect the host of ways others “finish” with us in life: through hearsay; death; escape; mysterious disappearance; imprisonment/confinement; final comeuppance (i.e., poetic justice); marriage, domestic bliss, all the varied forms of happily ever after; the parting of ways [as in the epigraph above]; the breakdown in friendship… the list goes on and on.
This craft note bookends the most recent in the series (WTP website, December 7, 2022), which looked at some of the ways in which characters first appear, specifically when a writer “assembles a gang” at the outset of a work. A writer can, of course, assemble such gangs at any point along the way—the first gang assembled often proving incidental to the work as a whole, like the band of young roughnecks who kick-start the conflict in Romeo and Juliet.
Expectation—it’s fair to say—is front-loaded in fiction. Anticipation runs highest at the outset of a work, just as, in human development, infancy awakens our keenest feelings of “suspense,” our richest sense of possibility. There is simply more at stake—say what you will, not to neglect the concern owed to our seniors—in the nurturing of the newborn than in the care of the elderly. By analogy, strategic and “ethical” issues are bound to be more pressing at the outset of a work, where the reader will ask (if only subliminally), “Am I in good hands here?”, the corollary being, “Will I be treated with consistent respect as an intelligent reader throughout this work?”
It’s a “competency” issue, then, a question of sustained artistic control. Fiction, we know, allows for sleights and undercuttings—it’s a craft, after all—and the deft violation of the reader’s expectations, as in the use of wrongfooting or the planting of “red herrings,” is a standard part of our doing business. I think of Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, where the central dramatic events are revealed, at the end, to have been an “animal fable,” essentially a metonym (a purely literary trope) for concluding the work and giving the characters their exits.
But there are certain fallings-off in the writing we do that are best avoided. The violation of trust readers feel most keenly is the letdown involved in having had strong curiosity aroused about a character (often as not a major one), together with the emotional attachment engendered, which is then subverted for no apparent reason, either dramatic or thematic. Literature is replete, of course, with disposable characters who are seen only briefly, like Shakespeare’s youthful roughnecks and “cameo” characters like the scoundrel Wick Cutter and the pianist Blind D’Arnault in Cather’s My Ántonia, who get their several pages and then simply vanish. We can play fast and loose with our secondary and tertiary characters, little harm done. More is at stake when it comes to our major figures as to how they might be last seen or heard of. For all that, I’ll hazard this observation:
The negligent or inept management of characters is more to be tolerated at the
conclusion of a work than it is at the beginning.
The literary evidence, I think, bears this out. Were Dickens as uncertain in launching Great Expectations as he is in trying to end it, it’s not very likely his readers would feel in good hands. Even more perplexing are those head-scratching endings that just seem to “quit,” as are those works in which important-seeming characters are simply left stranded. We wonder, at times, if the writer was just too exhausted to exercise care in seeing characters to their exits as was spent on inventing and introducing them. Yes, we all know the cliché, “Art is never finished, always abandoned.” Still.
Let’s look at select ways in which characters are made to exit from their works.
The definitive “last-seen-or-heard-of” exit: the story and character(s) ending together
Many such endings have a “nothing-remains-to-be-said” quality to them, whereas others of the kind will conclude in medias res, leaving essentially unresolved (and open to future possibilities) all sorts of issues. Few writers more excel at this latter type of ending than D. H. Lawrence, who, in his stories and novels alike, brilliantly executes “in-suspension” endings. Here are the final words of his short novel, The Fox (all italics mine):
“You’ll feel better when once we get over the seas, to Canada, over there,” he said to her…
“Shall I?” she said.
“Yes,” he answered quietly.
And her eyelids dropped with the slow motion, sleep weighing them unconscious. But she pulled them open again to say:
“Yes, I may. I can’t tell. I can’t tell what it will be like over there.”
“If only we could go soon!” he said, with pain in his voice.
Of the “nothing-remains-to-be-said” conclusions, as famous as any is Hemingway’s oft-revised end (47 drafts by one count) to A Farewell to Arms, where, in quick enough succession, Frederic and Catherine’s baby dies, then Catherine dies, her body “like a statue,” no point in lingering over it, and Frederic walks back to the hotel in the rain.
Such endings can have, as Hemingway’s does, a meaningfully and shockingly abrupt quality to them, whereas others will offer a stately “cadencing down” (a strategy meriting more than we’ve time for here) that moves the final moments through a rhythmic progression to an almost symphonic final “tonic chord.” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Flowering Judas” does this effectively as it ends with Laura’s terrible nightmare. Space limitations thwart the full text, but the final lines read this way:
… She saw that his hand was fleshless, a cluster of small white petrified branches, and his eye sockets were without light, but she ate the flowers greedily, for they satisfied both hunger and thirst. Murderer! said Eugenio, and Cannibal! This is my body and my blood. Laura cried No! and at the sound of her own voice, she awoke trembling, and was afraid to sleep again.
Yet other such endings of work-and-character-together are rhetorical in nature—a particular privilege, it’s fair to generalize, of the first-person voice. Such is the case in Ralph Ellison’s iconic conclusion to Invisible Man:
Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.
Epilogues: the varied possibilities
Here again, the options are abundant. Let’s start with a classic. What would come more readily to mind than George Eliot’s Middlemarch? Titled “Finale,” the epilogue starts by generalizing:
Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years?
Eliot continues to aphorize for a tad—her narrator’s habit throughout the whole novel. Then we learn, in ascending order, the fates of central characters: Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, and their nearest of kin; then Lydgate and Rosamond, a decent man undone by a beautiful narcissist; and lastly, Dorothea, as passionate as ever—mother, finally, of a son. Eliot closes by aphorizing yet again, extolling the power of the unobtrusive:
[Dorothea’s] finely-touched spirit still had its fine issues, though they were not widely visible… The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Less direct epilogues: By contrast, Cather’s “Epilogue” to The Song of the Lark has an almost coy quality. Having first reviewed life as it now goes on in Moonstone, Thea’s Colorado hometown, Cather directs our focus to Thea’s Aunt Tillie, a silly goose of a character throughout the whole novel—but someone who has had a prophetic intuition about Thea’s artistic promise. The real news here is our learning, incidentally, that, yes, Thea has married Fred Ottenburg:
When the Denver papers announced that Thea Kronborg had married Frederick Ottenburg, the head of the Brewers’ Trust, Moonstone people expected that Tillie’s vain-gloriousness would take another form. But Tillie had hoped that Thea would marry a title, and she did not boast much about Ottenburg—at least not until after her memorable trip to Kansas City to hear her sing.
In Kansas City, Fred wins Tillie over, as he has so many others throughout the novel. Cather’s epilogue, gentle and humorous, deflects its focus almost entirely away from Thea. Our last “glimpse” of her is of her wedding dress, no more.
“Second-life” sequels and alternative endings
We’ve already mentioned Great Expectations, where Dickens struggles to finish with Pip and Estella in two alternative endings. John Fowles likewise ends The French Lieutenant’s Woman with alternative endings, the second affording Charles and Sarah a vastly different fate from the first, more conventionally Victorian one. Debate persists as to whether Fowles himself was more at ease with the second than the first. In any event, his pair of endings feels rather more “stylish” than Dickens’ efforts do.
The “new life” ending: The remarkable transformation of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment into a saintly character in prison—one version of the redemptive outcome—is an abiding instance of this trope. Does it strain credulity for us to be to entertaining this “second” Raskolnikov, given the tortured criminal brilliance of the first? What need, we ask, had Dostoevsky to do this? The reader decides.
The life-beyond-death ending: Ghostly presences and the “remnants” of people that persist beyond their actual lives are too numerous to count. This “after-self,” as we might call it, can make a physical appearance, be reported on by others, reliably or not, or prove (a use of wrongfooting) to have been merely a delusion. We think of those instances where the character in question, ostensibly deceased, is shown clinging to life, like the title character in William Golding’s oddly unsettling novel, Pincher Martin. Pincher is left stranded on a rock, Prometheus-like, somewhere out in the Atlantic, tenaciously fighting to stay alive, although, as we’ll learn, he actually died quickly: “He didn’t even have time to kick off his seaboots.” Bergman’s film, Cries and Whispers (which also appeared in The New Yorker as a story), offers an even more haunting instance, its central character struggling to die—even beyond death.
When authors seem to “dump” or withdraw from their characters
It can stir mixed feelings in us when a writer appears to hurry away from, turn against, or cease to have a genuine interest in central characters. This reader, for one (others will contest this), finds Tolstoy so intent on concluding War and Peace with his tendentious “theory of history” that he ceases to generate any real dramatic tension in rounding out his principals. He contents himself, instead, with a scene of domestic happiness that is almost sentimental:
As is the way with every large household, several quite separate microcosms lived together at Bald Hills and… merged into one harmonious whole. Every event that happened in the house was important, joyful or sad for all these microcosms, though each circle had its own private grounds for independent rejoicing or mourning over a given event.
Thus Pierre’s return was a happy and important occurrence affecting them all.
Domestic events go on for some pages, but for all intents and purposes, Tolstoy’s treatment of his characters is finished—well short of the novel’s end. They’ve been dismissed.
Other writers “distance” themselves from their characters very near to, or at the very end of, a tale, by growing dismissive toward them, or else antagonistic. Hardy, who sends Tess to the gallows off-stage, grows less sympathetic toward her as her fortunes decay. Cather likes Thea as the great operatic diva notably less than as the young girl in Moonstone. And Thackery steps away from his rich broth of characters at the end of Vanity Fair: they have been “merely puppets,” artifacts all along in the hands of the puppet master… but Thackery’s ending is complex, the “puppet-show” trope having bookended the novel, more intricately so than we have time for here.
Where, then, let’s end by asking, might a writer’s ineptness, or terminal exhaustion, or even exercise of guile in seeing characters to their exits shade over into something we might rightly call abuse? Is it “anything goes” in the way we treat our readers? We all understand that invention and deception are the world’s oldest twins, and that our reader beckons to us with this invitation: “Yes, by all means, fool me! Take me captive! Delight in fooling me!” then adds as a coda, “… but don’t take me for one.” Taking “diplomatic advantage” of another’s openness—this is what Lucy so bitterly resents Miss Bartlett for in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View—entails the unavoidable risk of doing undue damage to others’ self-esteem. For Forster, for one, it constitutes an unpardonable ethical breach. But for each of us as writers, the choice remains a free one as to how we’ll see our characters to their exits, whatever the consequences.