I just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette for an English seminar, a nearly five hundred-page book told from the perspective of Lucy Snowe. Snowe is an impersonal, complex, and often confusing narrator who struggles to define her identity and find happiness and meaning in life. The story tackles ideas of sex, love, depression, death, identity, relationships, and hope, introducing us to multi-dimensional characters and creating an intriguing, fictional world. Yet at the end of the story, when we finally have a sense of personal progression in Lucy Snowe, (spoiler alert) Brontë implies that Lucy’s lover, M. Paul, never returns, and that Lucy reverts to her previous internal struggles that she grappled with throughout the novel. After making such an implication, Brontë proceeds to tell us the “happy endings” for three of the side characters, concluding the story.
Feeling rather unsatisfied with the ending and perhaps even a bit betrayed by Brontë, I closed the book, the book I spent hours reading only to have an unfulfilling conclusion, and turned on Gossip Girl. The all-consuming show’s ending never disappoints, no matter how many times you watch it (I won’t spoil the ending this time). An episode later, I closed my laptop and returned to my thoughts about Villette’s conclusion again, as well as the root of my frustration.
Villette very much reminded me of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, as both novels center aroundprotagonists struggle to define themselves in relation to society and the world. Swing Time received the greatest criticism in regards to the protagonist; People asserted that there was no personal progression of the unnamed narrator. Readersclaimed to not know what the “takeaway” wasof the novel itself, given the inapparent character development of the protagonist. As I considered the criticism of Swing Time, I realized that it was for this very reason that I felt so completely unsatisfied with Villette. Lucy Snowe, despite her development and personal growth readerssee in the last few chapters, sheregresses to pain and struggle in the end, essentially where she beginsthe story. I’ll add here, for those who read Villette, that others may have another interpretation of this ending, so I am proceeding according to my take on it.
Swing Time is one of my favorite novels- the pages are covered with annotations and I have reread passages again and again- so what, then, differentiates Swing Time from Villette? I began to see Villette from a new perspective through mycomparison to Swing Time, and I concluded that both novels are less so about the ending and more so about the content. It is in this very manner that the novelsform their impact and literary merit. While the ending of Villetteis not “happy” or quite desired by readers, we cannot forget all that occurred within the nearly five hundred pages leading up to it. We cannot dismiss the impact of the novel based solely upon the ending, because otherwise, we would not have the pleasure of learning about the value of childhood, the varying degrees of intimacy, the idea of “versions” of ourselves compiling into one identity, or even the very brilliancy of Brontëherself as a writer in all her beautifully crafted sentences and interesting stylistic choices.
As readers, do we need a “happy” ending to be content with a novel? Does the protagonist have to start somewhere and end somewhere else in order for the novel to have literary merit? There seems to be a heavy focus on endings, so much so that we judge a novel based upon, or rather greatly influenced by, the ending. Brontëeven addresses this focus when she provides the “happy” endings of the three side characters; She knows that readers expect a happy ending, and so she mockingly delivers one. And if we truly consider this dynamic, it sounds incredibly limiting and short-sighted to give the conclusion, just a small fraction of the entire novel, such power in determining the novel’s worth. This isn’t to say that an ending has no value, for where the author leaves us at the end is always strategic and therefore important to think about. However, we have grown too attached to endings, allowing them to influence our perception of the whole novel.
So let’s examine this a little deeper: why is it that we need a “happy” or conclusive ending- one that leaves us content with the final place of the protagonist? Emma, a main character in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, has an obsession with romance novels, and she explains how novels pull her into a sort of fantasy world, one that caters to her desires. Novels, for her, are an escape from reality, and she even goes so far to admit that she doesn’t want to read about characters and plots that resemble real life. I don’t know if I would agree with Emma’s last point, as often I am attracted to a novel for its relatability to my own life, but novels definitely do create an alternate world, one that lives within the pages and embraces us as readers. And maybe this is why we depend on a satisfying ending; it’s not only a conclusion to the novel, but a farewell to our alternate world. It is our exit back into the real world, after investing such time into the story, feeling that is felt by the characters felt and seeing all that they saw. In this way, an ending of a novel resembles a “goodbye”, and when we part from one another, we expect a dear and genuine last few words.
Another potential explanation for our reliance on endings, which can also be deduced from Emma’s fascination with romance novels, is that the novel becomes a fantasy world for us, and so we want a satisfying ending for our fantasy. For those who desire love, a romance novel provides them with this aspect of life they long for, so they expect a happy conclusion to this fantasy. For those who struggle to define themselves, they expect the protagonist who shares in this struggle to eventually overcome his or her challenges to develop a sense of self. The problem with this form of reliance on endings is their inaccuracy to real life. Emma, in Madame Bovary, develops an unrealistic perception of love through the romanticized depictions of it in the novels she reads, which ultimately affects her relationship with her husband and threatens her character and morality when she commits infidelity due to her notions of what love “should” look like.
Beyond the literary community, perhaps the root of our dependence on endings lies inhuman nature- in our need for immediate gratification and focus on the end result. In school, while we may engage in our classes and appreciate what we are learning, our minds are oriented around the end: the grade. We often remember the grade more so than the content of the class, even if we enjoyed learning the material. Our focus on the grade hinders our ability to take away the knowledge and merit of the class. It is our natural instinct to crave gratification; We want the satisfying ending and we want it now. This impatient, goal-oriented nature applies to how we read novels, shifting our focus from the middle to the end.
Furthermore, endings have seemed to shift our perspective from the present to the future. To a certain degree, a focus on the future is beneficial, but there exists a delicate balance between the past, present, and future that drastically alters perspective when disrupted. My high school has a tradition, in which at the end of Community Meeting, which was a student-run event for announcements and performances held once a week in the theater, the vice president would ask: “Seniors, how many days until graduation?”. All of the seniors would then reply with how many days were left, and then they would leave the theater first, before the underclassmen. I never thought much of this tradition until I was a senior, and my calculus teacher, who passionately believed in the power of the present, told us how much he hated that we “countdown the days until graduation” instead of “making the days count”. It was in that moment that I began to question why it was exactly that I longed for graduation, so much so that I counted down the days? Yes, I was ready to leave and excited to start somewhere new, but if I counted down the days until graduation from the start of senior year, then perhaps I was not making the days count. I was not seeing each day as an opportunity to learn something new, to be inspired, to smile or make someone else smile, nor to have any unique, enriching experience. Yet, this attitude was not characteristic to solely me, for the entire senior class, generation after generation, participated in the tradition. As seen through the end of school, endings have become something desired, so much so that we neglect all that surrounds us in the present. Therefore, when we read a book, we instinctively miss wonderfully crafted lines, detailed setting descriptions that place us in the story, and character development that allows us to understand the plot more fully. We may read these passages, but our minds are focused on the end- we’re counting down the pages instead of making the pages count.
This criticism of endings is not to say that they don’t have an impact. I’ll be the first to admit that the ending of The Great Gatsby left me with a clear image of what F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted us to take awayaboutthe danger of living in the past. And the very structure and rhythm of the last line was just extremely satisfying (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”). I’ll also admit that I spend a decent amount of time thinking about the ending of a novel in terms of its effect and relation to the text as a whole, as I did when I concluded Villette or Swing Time. I’m not saying that we should ignore endings nor that we do not have a right to react to them in some way, either positive or negative. But I do believe that there is much more merit in the middle than the end, and if our opinion of the end skews our perception of the middle, than we miss the opportunity to appreciate the true beauty of a novel. In a greater sense, as life and fiction are so inherently intertwined, our dependance on an ending not only applies to limitations within a story, but it extends to question the very essence of our lives. Endings challenge us to think about how our outlook on life confines or stimulates us, the ways in which we engage with the past, present, and future, and ultimately, whether we live for the middle or the end.