04/23/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The End Is Not the Means


I read an article in which the novelist, Kristopher Jansma, explored the issue of finding the proper ending for a novel. He was plagued by the question of leaving the ending ambiguous, or of tying things up in a neat knot -- one that would leave the reader "satisfied."

The article referenced Aristotle, and Rowling, and quoted Chekov and Vonnegut, saying among other things,

a novel aims not to represent just a slice of life, but the whole of it. We need more than just artfully posed questions. We expect to know unambiguously who is virtuous and who is corrupt, and have a novelist mete out fates accordingly.

The author commented on the occasional need for an ambiguous ending to a novel, quoting from The Gotham Writer's Guide.

In struggling with this issue, Jansma also quoted the critic James Wood's How Fiction Works stating, "that if Chekhov was right and novels do not give answers, they can still give 'the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric."

Nearing the end of the article, the author said, "Endings need not be conclusions."

I agree completely.

My view may be simplistic, but it is this: novels engage the reader by telling stories. An ambiguous end to a novel is not a problem -- ambiguity is fine. In fact, it may be the most truthful way for a novel to end.

After all, life itself is ambiguous -- no matter how we attempt to clarify and codify its many unanticipated twists and turns.

Yes, certain questions can be answered definitively. But many cannot. The larger questions of existence may be unanswerable. Throughout life, we encounter certain moral and existential dilemmas. Rarely do we experience crucial life-altering situations having absolute answers. We may be forced to make decisions replete with uncertainty, ambiguity and unknowns. As mature adults, we've left behind the child's need for "happily ever after" conclusions and have learned to accept reality as occasionally ending poorly.

I believe it's the journey of the novel that counts -- not so much its ending. If the author has transported you to another time and place, has embedded you in a character's world with its complexities and conflicts, the novel's conclusion need not be definitive for the read to have been satisfying, or even exhilarating.

I can think of many wonderful novels in which the conclusion is ambiguous or "unsatisfying." American Pastoral and Sophie's Choice are among the finest). But what is important in each novel, is the journey.

Above all -- and I think these are the crucial elements of storytelling -- the narrative must speak in its own unique voice, and thrum with conflict, authenticity, tension and truth.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier