Don Quixote…what happens to him at the end of the novel?
Oliver Twist…how is Oliver reunited with his birth mother? Why were they separated?
Catch 22…what happens to John Yossarian at the end of the novel? Does he finally get out of the army?
If you remember the endings of all three of these seminal works of literature, I’m impressed. (Are you a literature professor?) More likely, you remember things from the middles of those novels. Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Oliver’s apprenticeship as a pickpocket with the Artful Dodger and Fagin. Yossarian learning the meaning of Catch 22: if you want to be diagnosed as insane in order to avoid combat, it only proves that you are sane.
So, what actually happens in the endings in our quiz? Don Quixote, you may remember, was driven nuts by reading chivalric romances. In the end he recovers his sanity and apologies to all whom he hurt. Oliver Twist—trick question, sorry—is not reunited with his birth mother. She’s dead. He is instead adopted by kindly Mr. Brownlow, whose handkerchief was stolen by the Artful Dodger.
Yossarian—also a trick question, sort of—was not exactly in the army. At the end of the novel he is still in the 256th Army Air Squadron, but he decides to go AWOL, following his squad-mate Orr, whom he believed dead, to Sweden. If you thought that Yossarian was in the army, you—like many—may have conflated Catch 22 with the TV show M.A.S.H., which was not, as is sometimes supposed, based on the novel Catch 22 but rather on the 1968 novel MASH by Richard Hooker.
If you flunked today’s quiz, don’t feel bad. Many endings are not well remembered. Dorothy returning to Kansas and Scarlett O’Hara embracing her legacy, Tara, are among the exceptions. But if endings are often not well remembered, that is my point. We do not remember success as much as struggle. A miracle at the end doesn’t stick with us as much as the agony in the middle.
Endings can satisfy, in other words, but we are most deeply engaged by how that satisfaction is earned. Endings can thrill, too, but that thrill depends on the disasters and dread that precede it. Endings can be happy, sweet or even weepy, but that won’t happen if we do not first fear that happiness is impossible or hope that something wonderful will never go away.
Thus, the impact of your ending derives from what you create in the middle, things like impossible struggles, iconic actions, great secondary characters (good and bad), moral and emotional agony, failure, hope and meaning. To cheer we must first despair. To weep we must first know joy. The effect is all in the set up.
Let’s take a look at the symbiotic relationship of endings to middles. [Read more…]