Joan Acocella has a New Yorker blog post that starts: “Many of the world’s best novels have bad endings. I don’t mean that they end sadly, or on a back-to-work, all-is-forgiven note (e.g. ‘War and Peace,’ ‘The Red and the Black,’ ‘A Suitable Boy’), but that the ending is actually inartistic—a betrayal of what came before.” This is an indubitable fact, and it doesn’t only apply to books; I’ve long noticed that almost all movies go on fifteen minutes or so longer than they should. Her discussion of possible reasons is interesting. But what amuses me is that she seems to have entirely forgotten how War and Peace actually ends, which is not “when the excitable young heroine grows up and has kids and gets fat.” I complained about it at length here (scroll down to “But nothing will reconcile me to the Second Appendix”). Not that I blame her—in fact, I think the Second Appendix should be printed in such tiny type only the most hardened seekers after boredom would read it. Or just omitted entirely. Sorry, Lev Nikolaevich!


  1. I just read what you wrote about it in 2009. Have you ever read Edward Said’s work? What you wrote about the Second Appendix reminded me of Said’s book, Orientalism. I was only able to read a little bit of it.

  2. From “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” (PDF; 1937) by Wolcott Gibbs:

    24. Writers also have an affection for the tricky or vaguely comic last line. “Suddenly Mr. Holtzman felt tired” has appeared on far too many pieces in the last ten years. It is always a good idea to consider whether the last sentence of a piece is legitimate and necessary, or whether it is just an author showing off.

    The same applies to last chapters. Tolkien was persuaded, I think wisely, to drop the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings before publication.

  3. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    Thank you for expanding on this.
    I know as a novelist I have a lot of trouble with endings. I want to stop at the moment the characters’ situation stops being interesting, but to me, that’s often before the resolution — at the point where the resolution is obvious and inevitable, and you know exactly what’s going to happen. But stopping before the resolution is not acceptable. I think some of the blame has to be laid at the traditional novel structure, honestly. We have points we have to hit. If we don’t the ending is “rushed and incomplete” but if we do . . . well, it just goes on and on and you’re still writing the damned thing after you really want to be working on that new one with all the cool bits in it.
    It’s as annoying to the writer as the reader, I think.

  4. Has any great lyric poem been non-fatally disabled by a poor ending? I’d wager not but it would be interesting to try to find one. The deeper artistic question must be: how can a novel remain great despite a poor ending? Is it just because there’s plenty of writing to admire before the let-down, or something about narrative that (despite itself) frustrates artistic completion.

  5. I’ve certainly forgotten it. I only read the book a year or two ago, and now that you mention it, I remember that there was a 2nd epilogue after the one about natasha and pierre growing old and dull, but I can’t at all remember what it was about.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I saw a live performance of Le Nozze di Figaro for the first time in my life a few weeks back and I was struck by, well, maybe not the badness of the ending but the arbitrariness of the ending. It seemed that the plug could have been pulled, and the various farcical plot twists neatly wound up, a half hour earlier without losing much, but it also seemed that one could have equally well continued to let one farcical misunderstanding beget another for a further half hour or more before pulling the plug and coming to the same ending point, so that the decision as to when to wind things up seemed more driven by concerns about what overall running length would be most audience-suitable than by any internal logic to the plot itself.

  7. I consider Le Nozze di Figaro pretty much the perfect opera, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  8. “One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.”
    As much as I like “Essay on Man” or pretty much anything Pope ever wrote, this line makes me wanna barf.

  9. I tend to reread Jane Austen’s novels more often than I probably should. (I compare myself to the old lady who, when asked “Do you ever read novels?” replied “Oh, yes, I read all six of them once a year”.)
    For me, some of her endings definitely belong to the “letdown” category. Too tidy. A little boring. The author seems a little bored.
    I haven’t read “Enthusiasm” in a while, and I have to admit that part of the reason is that the paperbook edition that I have provides two different endings. I want just one.

  10. Come to think of it, really good endings are pretty scarse, but i’m not sure there’s such a glut of outright bad ones. There’s no shortage of dull, trite, clumsy, or otherwise forgettable endings on well-written books, but i’m having a hard time thinking of more examples of good books with unforgivably bad endings. Most of the examples that the New Yorker author gives seem to be books that start well then slip into dull second halves. And if you’ve gotten to the end of War and Peace, you’ve already withstood a fair amount of Tolstoy’s philosophical meanderings, what’s another 80 pages?

  11. Talking of the New Yorker (and by the way shouldn’t they put dots over some of the letters so you know it’s the newyork-er and not the new ‘Yorker’? It’s so confusing), here’s a great reading and discussion afterwards of Nabokov’s ‘My Russian education’ by Orhan Pamuk.

  12. Marc Leavitt says

    Years ago, a fellow editor (newspaper) told me that, “There’s no story you can’t cut.” He was correct. The same holds true of any writing.

  13. @Marc Leavitt “The same holds true of any writing.” I beg to differ. Try cutting even one syllable of the following:

  14. Again (see D-AW above), I think lyric poetry is an exception.

  15. I’ve long noticed that almost all movies go on fifteen minutes or so longer than they should.

    You must have seen the modern version of The Man in the Iron Mask. For the briefest of moments I was giving Hollywood credit of having developed an inkling of sense and taste.
    And then the credits didn’t roll …

  16. Kári Tulinius says

    How does the end of War and Peace compare to the last part of Anna Karenina?
    Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books of all time, but I’ll be damned if that final bit didn’t almost convince me otherwise. I think it’s a testament to Tolstoy’s skill that the novel is otherwise great enough that the end doesn’t completely ruin it. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe it makes you appreciate the rest more, as you better have a good reason for having trudged through that dreck.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    As evidence that the problem is to do more with conventions about novel-writIing rather than authors simply getting bored or running out of steam: Japanese authors often seem to regard the tidying up of all loose ends that we expect not only to be unnecessary, but positively inartistic (which can leave us Westerners, perversely, feeling short-changed.)
    I could come up with quite a few examples, I think, but one that immediately comes to mind is the end of 細雪/The Makioka Sisters,
    *** SPOILER *** (or not, in the circumstances) ****
    with Yukiko setting off for Tokyo in the train. She hasn’t even got there by the end of the book, much less finally got married …

  18. the most hated ending of a story was the story about how a couple wasted all their life to repay a very high-priced jewelry the wife borrowed from her wealthy girlfriend and they learn in the end that it was fake or in sound and fury the unworthy stupid father introducing his instant new wife to his children, maybe that was a very strong ending for a novel, just as a story i didn’t like it
    now it seems i don’t recall the story in it all that well too cz its wiki reads to me like some very remote version of what i remember
    so i prefer too the stories not ending definitely with death of the protagonist or wedding and happily thereafter, should leave something to imagination i guess, that’s how life is anyway, with everything uncertain and mostly a matter of chance

  19. Amen – we rarely need to know the names and birthdays of the protagonists’ children, or exactly which ripe old age they finally die.

  20. Could it be that some “bad” endings are concessions to less critical readers — those who read for the plot? Some people love that stuff. I don’t, but my students for example can’t stand stories/books that don’t resolve or end cleanly: Better everybody die than to have any ambiguity. Chekhov and other moderns (including Hawthorne, especially his “Wakefield”) make them very cross….
    Mr/Ms read: The first work you refer to sounds like de Maupassant. The second is not “The Sound and the Fury” but “As I Lay Dying,” and I think Faulkner was having fun with the form with that ending, mocking it even…. I admire him for not adding any appendices!
    Love this place, Hat. Can I stay? I’ll try not to be a boor or a bore.

  21. yeah, now i recall they go around carrying their mother’s coffin and all kinds of misfortunes happen to the family, right, _the sound and the fury_ too seemed familiar, so i conflated them i guess, happens a lot with the books i read long before and haven’t have a chance to reread

  22. Of course; all are welcome at the Hattery! I warn you, though, divagations and obscure jokes are not only tolerated but encouraged with the utmost severity. (And my congratulations for being able to deal with actual teaching; my incapacity to persuade a roomful of students that they should pay attention to me and the subject matter rather than each other or their inner muse was one of the factors that dissuaded me from a career in academia.)

  23. had

  24. marie-lucie says

    The story about the fake jewelry that destroys the couple’s life is by Maupassant (we don’t use the “de” when the first name or title is not mentioned). Maupassant’s works usually end with bitter irony, as in that story. He does not try to tie up loose ends and never provides a deus ex machina to save the situation.

  25. yes, i remember reading his short stories book, just thought that story was maybe from bret harte, or someone similar, i wish my memory was stronger, forget a lot
    i think i liked definite endings when was younger too, in short stories, novellas i guess, maugham, zweig, remark
    this summer i reread _ the metamorphosis_and it felt as if like something new, what one reads when still a kid is perceived so differently when reread as an adult

  26. marie-lucie says

    read: what one reads when still a kid is perceived so differently when reread as an adult
    Absolutely! Such books are not intended for children, although children might enjoy them without full understanding. They were written by adult writers for other adults, and a lot of details are beyond the experiences or even the imagination of children.
    A long time ago when I was starting to read English literature (before studying it in university), I came across a book by Walter Scott and started to read it. I was struck by the fact that the chapters were of very uneven length. I have totally forgotten the story, even the title, except for one chapter, which consisted of this single sentence (I don’t remember the names of the characters): “The next day [Boy] declared his love to [Girl]”. I ultimately understood that the edition I was reading (in a special collection) was one meant for young boys, and the editors had skipped the parts that young boys would not be interested in.

  27. Of course there are stories you can’t cut. “Jesus wept”, for example.

  28. adelfons – you’re right that someone must expect pat epilogues or they wouldn’t be there, but I swear they’re all the more irritating at the end of non-critical, light-weight novels–they feel unearned.

  29. there are stories you can’t cut. “Jesus wept”, for example.
    Cut the predictable ending: “Jesus…”. We just don’t know.

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