Cut the Cord

The umbilical cord, to be precise

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But first you have to write the ending.

Correction: First off, you must avoid any ending in which some godlike savior comes into the story to take care of everything and everyone. This is a deus ex machina, a last-minute, last-ditch, make-everything-right, sort-out-the-kinks-and-crinkles ending that satisfies no one.

Now: write an ending that is not deus ex machina.

We have already described one kind of ending. Beginning in medias res allows us to end with the beginning, which, done well, will then be surprising or informative, or both.

Another well-known type of ending is demonstrated by James Joyce’s collection of stories titled Dubliners. (Joyce was Irish and later moved to Europe.) The ending is called an epiphany. Epiphanies were previously moments in which a scientific or religious thought shed light on a text, the reader or observer or congregation jolted into understanding. In his first book of fiction, Joyce elected to close his stories with epiphanies. In these stories, his protagonists came suddenly to truths that altered their understanding of themselves and/or the social conditions in which they lived. Another way of saying this: The protagonist, and likewise the reader, experience an expansion of their understanding as if a bright light were suddenly shed on a mysterious or half-hidden meaning.

Take, for example, “Araby,” one of the best-known stories in the collection. It takes place in a Dublin that is dark, dank, and dispiriting. One young boy, just becoming aware of girls and their attractiveness, is enamored of a friend’s sister, who asks him if he will go to the Araby bazaar. She explains she cannot go. The boy immediately promises to bring back something for her. But his aunt and uncle make him late. By the time he gets there, most of the stalls are shut down. One still open shows him a young woman in silly conversation with two men. The young woman is more interested in them than in the boy’s desire to buy something for Mangan’s sister. The half-dark hall, the stupid young woman, the late hour, his aunt and uncle and their barren lives — all this coalesces into a moment of anger and despair, a moment in which he understands he is not a romantic prince, Araby is not fantastic but shoddy and foolish, and nothing is ever going to get any better than this. Beneath his dreams lies only a ridiculous, down-trodden, un-inspiring Ireland and in it he is hopelessly stuck.

In fact, Joyce himself would leave Ireland as soon as he could. He arrived in Europe in his early twenties with his to-be wife Nora Barnacle. But however glad he was to be out of it — and he was glad — Dublin remained his inspiration and his “map” of the world. He once said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” His masterpiece, Ulysses, does just that.

Cherry on Style

“The Dead” is widely considered Joyce’s finest short story. It is a longish short story and the last in Dubliners. The lead character, Gabriel, listens to a sad tale of true life that his wife, Gretta, tells after they have returned home from a party. Having unburdened her heart, she falls asleep. Gabriel stands at the window, stunned that she had kept her tale to herself for so long. As he gazes into the falling snow, he begins to think of all the deaths that — what? color? clutter? depress? sadden? infect? inflect? — our lives. He realizes that he will die, his wife will die, everyone they know will someday die. Of course we know this, but how often do we think about it? We live our lives as if death were alien and far away, when actually it is just outside the bedroom door or the window. He lets his mind wander. He thinks about the majority dead, their effect on those who are still living, and realizes that at some point he and everyone he knows will be a mere memory. He finds a way to interpret the fact of death as an affirmation of life. Life is now, Ireland is now, his friends are now. As the story ends, we are told that “[h]is soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Gabriel has had an epiphany.

Incidentally, take a second look at “falling faintly” and “faintly falling.” Why is it there? Because it’s “poetic”? It certainly is poetic, and the reversal of the words catch our attention. But it’s also rather like a hiccup. Why would the author of one of the world’s great short stories insert a hiccup? Was the author falling asleep? I doubt it. For that matter, what is “the descent of their last end?” Is it the end of the last living? The final snowfall of all time? My guess is that this is where Gabriel drops into sleep, “his soul,” as Joyce says, “swooning.” To swoon is to pass almost out, and in that condition the mind repeats and falters, falters and repeats.

At some point the epiphany became a favorite way to end stories and for a time The New Yorker wanted only stories that concluded with epiphanies. (Later The New Yorker wanted stories that ended obliquely or faded into obscurantism. Even literature has fashions.)

All kinds of endings — happy, sad, humorous, thoughtful, with a bang or whisper — are alive and well and thriving, but of course the most important thing about an ending is that it makes an impression on the reader. Makes the reader respond to the ending, whether with hilarity, sobriety, sadness, or satisfaction. Makes the story memorable to the reader. You may want to return to or reveal an object that was merely mentioned in the beginning. Remember Orson Welles and the film Citizen Kane? A hard-nosed tycoon, dying, speaks one final word. The word is Rosebud. A reporter is charged with the task of finding out what it means. Everyone is expecting some remarkable explanation consistent with the tycoon’s disdain for weakness, for, let’s say, as he might have, the peons of the world. The reporter discovers the tycoon’s poverty-stricken childhood, which is turned to riches when a gold mine is located on his parents’ boarding-house, but he cannot solve the puzzle of Rosebud. It is the audience, or more specifically the camera, that discovers it when a child’s sled is being tossed out to be burned. The camera shows us that “Rosebud” is the sled’s trade name. The sled is the one the child Kane was playing with when he was taken from his home in Colorado and sent off to be educated. Our view of Kane is now almost the polar opposite of what it was in the beginning. We thought he was crude, money-hungry, mean, despicable. Now we feel sorry for him. No, we don’t excuse him, but we all know how the loss of love can transform a person for better or, in his case, for worse. •

Images courtesy of **RCB** via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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