In light of Bonfire Night, I want to attempt to make a rather tenuous link with the explosive nature of certain particularly remarkable endings in literature. A dissatisfying ending is often underwhelming and lacks a climactic angle, while the most noteworthy endings are those which take their readership aback with a powerful and shocking conclusion to the narrative.
Before you carry on reading, it might be useful to point out that this article contains some significant spoilers. So, if you aren’t ready to find out how novels such as Atonement, The Great Gatsby or Of Mice and Men come to a dramatic conclusion, it might be best to leave this article for the time being.
This death, at first glance, appears unexpected as it essentially brings the narrative to an abrupt end
There are two types of endings, truly worthy of the title explosive, which I personally love. The first type is the predictable, yet simultaneously dramatic death of the protagonist. This death, at first glance, appears unexpected as it essentially brings the narrative to an abrupt end. However, upon closer inspection, the death is often necessary and foreshadowed throughout. For example, when Lennie Small is shot in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, we are initially heartbroken and stunned. However, once the shock has worn off, the reader begins to understand that George Milton’s mercy killing was both inevitable and expected.
Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the reader with this exact kind of dramatic ending. Gatsby is shot as he floats peacefully in his swimming pool and, at first, this brash turn of events appears completely volatile and sudden. However, at second glance, Gatsby’s death is arguably unavoidable and there is in fact a certain element of predictability to his explosive departure. We witness his fall from grace gradually: the disappearance of his great extravagant parties, the loss of his composure in the Plaza Hotel and his disillusioned last moments as he imagines the meaninglessness and emptiness of life without Daisy. The predictability of his death also comes from the author’s overarching message that America will not be able to survive the overindulgence of the Roaring Twenties. It is this steady downfall followed by a final climactic death that makes the ending of Fitzgerald’s novel so effective – it is what the reader has been anticipating all along.
The second type of explosive ending I enjoy is the ending which turns the narrative on its head within the space of a few pages. This ending imposes chaos and confusion on the reader who, moments before, had calmly been under the impression that they were almost finished with their book, that the story was over, and that there was nothing else to question, analyse or discuss. A prime example is the cyclical structure J. B. Priestley provides us with in his play An Inspector Calls, and the dramatic, inexplicable ending which wreaks havoc amongst the characters, as well as the reader.
Giving the reader a happy ending and immediately substituting it with a sad one is a brutal and haunting way of writing
Another novel which, for me, really provided an explosive ending of this manner is Ian McEwan’s last few paragraphs in Atonement, where Briony tells us (indirectly, but pretty clearly) that in the novel we’ve just finished reading, some of the plot isn’t “really” what happened. Briony justifies her unreliable narration by claiming that the reality couldn’t constitute a satisfactory ending. She contradicts her previous narrative, divulging that Robbie and Cecilia did not reunite or live happily ever after, in fact: they both died.
Briony never actually walked to her sister’s apartment, as she says she did earlier in the novel. Instead she simply returned to the hospital and merely imagined herself going to her sister’s, and therefore, never atoned for her sins. Giving the reader a happy ending and immediately substituting it with a sad one is a brutal and haunting way of writing. The complexity of McEwan’s ending, much like J.B. Priestley’s work, leaves the reader emotional, outraged and seeking answers. It is an explosive ending that simply leaves us wanting the novel to go on – and what more could an author ask for?
The importance of endings has long been discussed and debated in the literary world. At the very last moment, an ending has the ability to alter, and sometimes entirely subvert, the reader’s opinion of the novel. The last few pages of a book are naturally critical to the reader’s final impression of the work they have just read, and therefore, it is vital for the author to create a final few memorable chapters which refrain from undermining the rest of the story. For me, both McEwan’s and Fitzgerald’s explosive endings do this successfully by forcing us to question, recollect and analyse their work, even once we have finished reading.