[WARNING: Contains spoilers, obviously.]
Hemingway famously rewrote the final sentence of A Farewell to Arms over 40 times. Among his alternate endings are a short, pleasant scene in which he holds his newborn son in his arms, and a bleak, Holden Caulfield-like rumination on the agony of fond memories. One is so romantic that it could've undone the author's reputation for brusqueness. It reads: "... Finally I slept; I must have slept because I woke. When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and saw the sun on the trees in the courtyard and for that moment it was all the way it had been..." As fans know, he opted instead to have his protagonist go for a stroll in the rain alone.
When asked about his indecision, he quipped that he was chiefly concerned with "getting the words right," which is no small task when it comes to penning an ending. Fans are more likely to take issue with a novel's conclusion than any other part of the story -- it is their last chance to interact with the characters, after all.
Not every author imparts a sense of catharsis, happy or otherwise, the way Hemingway did with A Farewell to Arms. Readers seem to abhor endings that involve characters they've become invested in winding up with the "wrong" romantic partner. What's worse: vague cliffhangers. After reading An Imperial Affliction, a sort of story-within-a-story at the center of John Green's The Fault in our Stars, Augustus Waters panics: "Tell me my copy is missing the last twenty pages or something. Hazel Grace, tell me I have not reached the end of this book. OH MY GOD DO THEY GET MARRIED OR NOT OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS?!" He's referring to the book's final page, which ends in the middle of a sentence, and without explaining what becomes of many of its beloved characters. Augustus is grasping not for a happy ending necessarily, but, at the very least, for closure.
Ruth Graham cites this scene in her argument against adults reading YA books, stating life isn't neat, so literature shouldn't be either. A glaring counter-argument: Sometimes life is neat, so sometimes books should be, too.
So if happy, unhappy and uncertain endings are all acceptable under the right circumstances, what makes an ending bad? In general, an unsuccessful ending involves a disruptive departure from the tone of the rest of the book; when we've spent a good deal of time with a story, we expect that its conclusion isn't jarringly out of place. By those standards, here are 8 of the most disappointing endings in books:
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
If we're taking the Augustus approach, this book's final pages definitely qualify as disappointing. Wallace's choice to end the story mid-sentence is clever, certainly. But it raises the question: Is cleverness more artistic than, say, offering your readers some form of closure? Of course, fulfillment needn't take the form of a happy ending. But it wouldn't hurt to clue us in on what happens to Rick Vigorous and at least one of the Lenore Beadsmans. Michiko Kakutani called the conclusion "enigmatic." And it'd be fair to argue that elusiveness can urge a reader to contemplate possible outcomes. But in this case, the puzzling last scene doesn't seem to serve a broader purpose, unless the purpose is to preach life's absurdity and meaninglessness. In which case, touché, DFW. Touché.
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Yes, the quality of Suzanne Collins's writing slowly deteriorates over the course of the three books until it resembles so-so but definitely unpublishable fan fiction. But that's not the main issue with the series's conclusion. Why does Katniss end up with Peeta after devoting a considerable amount of energy to fending off his advances? It's understandable that she lacks the energy to lead an entire uprising against the Capitol, but is she really too drained to, say, carve out a life for herself that doesn't involve settling down with a dude she's not really that into? In some ways, Katniss was written as a protagonist who was simultaneously feminine and tough, and Collins's ending undermines that. Also, #TeamGale.
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Never mind that Rowling's choice to let Harry survive Voldemort's Killing Curse seems a little like a cop-out; while it's a shoddy means of brushing over a major plot hole, it would've upset a lot of fans and young readers if Harry was killed off. Rowling did admit that she'd considered axing Ron
(who she must really have disliked -- she's even deprived him of his happy ending in a statement made last year), but opted to let Hedwig die instead. The way the plot should or shouldn't have unraveled could be debated all day. But one indisputably annoying inclusion was the story's epilogue. Rather than allowing readers to imagine what restored peace in the wizarding world would entail, Rowling lists off schmaltzy details of our protagonist's adult lives, including Ginny and Harry's three kids, who have the cheesiest names imaginable: James Sirius, Albus Severus, and Lily Luna.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The beauty of Flynn's domestic thriller (aside from Amy's "Cool Girl" rant -- preach.) is her ability to create equal, if undulating, empathy for the two maniacal narrators, Nick and Amy. After reading Amy's perspective -- she's endured infidelity and has an apparent narcissism disorder -- it's almost understandable that she'd go to great and meticulous lengths to frame her husband for murder. And Nick's perspective -- he's sort of just a dumb and careless dude who doesn't consider the consequences of his actions -- allows readers to feel like he deserves to bet let off the hook. Flynn makes the perfect, twisted choice to leave these two in marital purgatory, but not before having Amy commit a needless and unforgivable crime, making it impossible to feel sorry for her. It'd be difficult to leave the story without siding with Nick, which is a shame, because he's kind of a jerk. Flynn has announced plans to tweak the ending for the movie version of the story -- let's hope she corrects her error.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This sprawling, beautiful novel (forget what James Wood et al. have to say about it
) concludes with tacked-on meditations on art and fate. It's as though Tartt put down her pen at page 750, then decided her less astute readers might benefit from a few pages explaining the insights conveyed by the plot in clunky, artless detail. The final scenes could more or less be copy-and-pasted into the "Themes" section of this book's SparkNotes page. IN CASE YOU DIDN'T GET IT, Theo is totally torn between living capriciously (like his dad) and deliberately (like his mom). He also thinks art is good and important. He also loves Pippa.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Alice meets bizarre characters, is shrunk by a potion she drinks, and plays croquet with a flamingo. She's confronted with a slew of logic problems, including an actual riddle which is left unanswered ("Why is a raven like a writing desk?"). Carroll, unfortunately, does not leave the riddle of her adventure unanswered -- rather than allowing for the dualities a vague ending would offer, he instead supplies readers with the biggest cliché in literature: It was all just a dream!
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Like Katniss's decision to wind up with Peeta, Jo's choice to marry Professor Bhaer ruffled fan's feathers. Alcott wrote that readers often inquired about who the sisters end up with, and she found the question irksome: "Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone." Jo and Laurie's similarities are instead framed as a negative, rather than a positive quality -- they're both ambitious and at times hot-headed. It'd be romantic for two passionate characters to work out some sort of relationship, but Alcott opts for a more practical outcome: Jo chooses to build a school, and a life, with the calm and encouraging Professor Bhaer, and Laurie gets married to her pesky sister, Amy.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Dickens actually wrote two very different endings for this novel. The conclusion that he ultimately went with, which he penned per a friend's suggestion
, involves Pip and Estella walking hand-in-hand into the sunset, and he can see "no shadow of another parting from her." It's interpretable whether or not this sentiment implies friendship or something more. Regardless, it seems strangely optimistic given Estella's established character, and feels discordant with the rest of the novel. Dickens had originally written a more realistic, but still somewhat happy ending, in which Pip and Estella's final exchange involves his learning that she's married a country doctor. Pip observes, "suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be."