It’s Come to This

November 2, 2006

Issue #11 of A Novel in One Semester
by Mary Kay Zuravleff, copyright 2006

Yes, we get to talk about endings here at A Novel in One Semester. I drew a blank in class, maybe because my own ending seems to have taken a left at Albuquerque. Meanwhile, what makes for a satisfying finish? From the infinite choices, here are three approaches we saw in our readings and one personal favorite flourish.

Early on, we’d listed classic time and plot structures, such as A Day in the Life, or A Stranger Comes to Town. These lend themselves to timely endings. Having reached the end of the main character’s life, with death on the horizon, we readers expect the book to fade out. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote’s narrator basically says: I once knew an interesting woman, this is what happened while I knew her, and then she left. Capote ends with the unnamed narrator seeing Holly’s cat safe in the window of a stranger’s apartment and hoping Holly found somewhere she belonged, too.

In both Ordinary Love and Good Will, Jane Smiley went for the wrap-up; it worked better in the first work, I think, because the narrator is wry and poignant in her pronouncements on ordinary love. The love she writes about is ordinary in the way that the love you feel for your right hand is ordinary, making the loss of love and limb comparable.

To wrap up The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald chose to go poetic with a line that several class members could quote but whose meaning is mercurial. And not just to me; there’s a cottage industry in papers on his intent. Fitzgerald simultaneously applauds and disparages our optimism as he records human nature, which is an apt role for the novelist. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We? Fitzgerald’s ending is inductive, generalizing from Gatsby’s story to include us in his conclusion; it also works against the tidiness of the plot; and (in the penultimate paragraph about Gatsby and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock) it loops the ending to the beginning.

Outside our class readings are two endings I particularly admire. Both are examples of the author takes a bow. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White breaks our hearts with Charlotte’s inevitable death and then has Wilbur telling the baby spiders how their crafty mother saved his life. White ends with the exquisite lines: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” And the last line of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

This week, I offered everyone temporary tattoos and my praise. Next week, November 8, 2006, our 40,000-word novels are due. You don't have to tell us; we know that’s just the beginning.