This weekend I finished the first draft of my current novel-in-progress (not so much "in progress" now, I guess), which meant that I had to write the ending of the book. I knew, more or less, what I wanted to happen at the very end of the story. I knew the ending before I wrote a word of Chapter One. But there is, of course, more to ending a novel than dramatizing the final plot point. Isn't there?
I wondered the whole time that I was writing my ending what the purpose of a novel's last chapter is. To finish the story, certainly. To say "what happened." To tie all the strands together into something satisfying for the reader, I guess. To close things off with an image that's appropriate and aesthetically pleasing, I suppose. Really, I'm not sure. I wrote my way from where I was at the end of Chapter 23 to the image and final paragraph I had for the close of the book. The path took some surprising turns that I didn't see coming but those turns please me, at least right now.
I tried to push away all those thoughts about purpose while I was writing my way to the end, but I wasn't entirely successful. There was one point when I was convinced that I had to have something Significant--something that summarizes or comments in some way upon the story--and I resisted that urge as much as I could, mostly just by avoiding my protagonist. The point of view of my final chapter circles around the protagonist, the story coming instead through some of the supporting cast; we only actually get inside the protagonist's head about a page before the end of the book, and when he finally thinks or speaks, I make him sort of inarticulate so as to deliberately not moralize or make him a proxy for my authorial commentary on the story.
Anyway, I think I've written a satisfactory ending. I think.
Naturally all of this makes me wonder about endings, especially the way endings are written in "modern" novels, whatever that means. Modern novels seem to have a certain expectation regarding endings, an expectation I've not really figured out. I've read a lot of 19th-century novels, where there is a tendency to have the author look back and reflect upon the events of the novel, to make some kind of a statement to/for the reader. There is also a tendency to have long denouements where we get a picture of the lives of all the characters after the story ends. I used to follow that model, but now I prefer a more abrupt ending, where you get the hell out of the story once the principal action is over. My favorite ending of any novel is that of Joyce's Ulysses, but my actual model for endings, I think, is Shakespearean tragedy:
Hamlet: Ouch! (dies)
Horatio: That's all folks! (waves at audience)
My latest book (like all my books) is a tragedy. Because things end unhappily in tragedies, some writers try to put some kind of positive spin on the action right at the end. Dickens gives characters heroic speeches sometimes (think of the end of A Tale of Two Cities); Hari Kunzru in Transmission goes fantasy and his protagonist may be happy, somewhere, after all; Junot Diaz in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao keeps tacking ending upon ending after the tragic finale until we are finally presented with an absurd and (if you're me) annoying happy ending. William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor were brave enough never to go that route.
Anyway, I am wondering in my long-winded way if you kind folks have any thoughts about endings. What is the purpose of the last chapter of a novel? Does the author owe the reader anything (I understand that in some genres there are conventions governing endings)? How do you feel about authors who supply morals and the like?