10 of the Most Gloriously Frustrating Endings in Literature

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There’s been an interesting back-and-forth happening in the books section of the Guardian’s website this week, catalyzed by the publication of a kinda vapid blog post about how “narratives that finish without resolving their plots… are unending torture for readers.” If that premise annoys you, you’re not the only one, and sure enough, yesterday the paper published another post rebutting the initial argument. At Flavorpill, we tend to fall into the camp who love a good ambiguous ending, so here are a few of our favorites, endings we’ve found either thrilling, maddening or just thought-provoking — what are yours? (And, of course, the very nature of this post means that spoilers obviously abound, so if you see the cover of a book/play/etc you haven’t read, proceed at your own risk!)

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Apart from the consistently brilliant prose, the bewildering array of characters and Wallace’s singular sense of humor, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Infinite Jest is that it’s a 1,000+ page novel wherein the most important events to the narrative never actually get narrated. We can understand why readers might feel cheated after slogging through all those pages, plus the innumerable footnotes, only to be confronted with “…and the tide was way out” rather than any sort of resolution — if anything, though, it made us want to return to the start of the book and start reading again.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

If you’ve ever managed to slog all the way through Finnegans Wake, we salute your endurance. If not, you can save yourself the trouble here: the book doesn’t have an ending at all, instead terminating in the middle of the same sentence that starts its first chapter, making the narrative an infinite loop and meaning that, in theory at least, once you start reading Finnegans Wake you can never stop. A fate worse than death? We’ll leave that particular judgement up to you.

An Inspector Calls by JB Priestly

Wait, so was he an inspector or not? Arggggghhhhhh.

The Magus by John Fowles

There are many ways to end a book, but on the assumption that you don’t want your readers to throw your book out the window with a howl of despair and rage, slicing off your narrative with an obscure quotation in Latin is not one of them. There’s an amusing anecdote about Fowles’ own interpretation of the ending here.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The conclusion of Kafka’s classic manages to be both awfully final and thoroughly ambiguous. After a novel of waiting for his sentence, poor old Josef K gets hauled out in the middle of the night and executed, a conclusion that seems inevitable from the very first sentence of the book. But the thing is, neither you nor Josef ever find out why. (Which, of course, is the point — but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.)

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

In an era of editors/producers/record companies/etc constantly trying to make to make art more palatable for a public they clearly consider at best half-witted and at worst completely and utterly useless, it’s rather heartening to hear that the final chapter of Lindsay’s classic, in which the book’s central mystery was resolved, was removed at her editor’s urging. The resultant ambiguity made Picnic at Hanging Rock hugely successful, and the subsequent publication of the chapter — some 20 years after the book’s initial release — was quite the event in Australian literary circles.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

We have to admit to having found this whole novel rather underwhelming, and not just because of the hype surrounding it and/or its curious religious undertones. Still, the ambiguity of the ending and the alternate story that Pi proposes in place of the outlandish tale that dominates the story’s narrative are clever ideas, although we’re not sure we particularly appreciate the implications of the “And so it goes with God” closing line. Hmph.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

Arguably, the best sort of ambiguous endings are the ones that let you fill in the gaps as to what may or may not happen after the story you’ve been reading has finished — if the author has painted compelling enough portraits of the characters and their motivations, then you shouldn’t need the implications spelled out. So it certainly goes with The Crimson Petal and the White, which has spawned innumerable discussions about what happens to the characters after its abrupt ending, discussions that haven’t been entirely settled by the publication of a sequel.

Dead Souls by Nicolai Gogol

In fairness, this isn’t exactly Gogol’s fault — he burned the second part of Dead Souls in 1852, apparently by accident, and was so distraught that he refused all food and died nine days later. Whether the abrupt ending of the existing novel — it terminates mid-sentence — is because it was designed to lead in to the second part, or was simply written that way regardless of the possibility of any continuation of the plot, remains the subject of much debate amongst Gogol scholars.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Judging by what’s gone before, perhaps it’s better not to know exactly what Judge Holden does to the kid in the outhouse — but shit, that doesn’t stop us from wanting to find out. (The epilogue is kinda bewildering, too.)