The End?: The Illusion of Ambiguous Endings

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inception-ambiguous-ending
from Inception (2010)

There are perhaps few things more frustrating to a reader than, after the time and commitment involved in reading a book, coming to an end that refuses to satisfy. It goes against our very nature as consumers. We’ve put in the work, so where is our reward? Surely the author owes us an ending that will impart to us that which we deserve. Instead, they give us nothing, dangling us off the edge of the page, smilingly smugly before they practically write, “Yes, that really is the end.”

We might argue that ambiguous endings are pointless and frustrating to the point that they are worth avoiding. Conversely, it might be said that unsatisfying endings are somehow more real, a higher and better form of art that represents life more accurately. Perhaps above these arguments, however, is the reality that when we face ambiguous endings, we are being asked far more explicitly about where reading and stories fit into our lives.

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The feeling of somehow being “ripped off” by the ending of a novel suggests a relationship with the novel heavily steeped in a very market-based attitude towards literature and media. The Guardian’s Lee Rourke observes the Marxist notion that the novel is an inherently bourgeois construct, which might be a reductive statement, but the point stands that novels have a very material tie to the audiences who must buy them in order to justify and continue their existence. The novel is a thing consumed, and, as much as it is also art, is the product of market forces as much as it is the product of literary progress. To insist that the ambiguous ending is valuable because it is a higher and more accurate form of art, however, is to fall into the same trap that requires literature maintain market value while also failing to acknowledge that life might not have as many ambiguities as we want to imagine that it does.

Hear me out. Saying that an ambiguous ending is more valuable because it mirrors the ambiguities of life fails to recognize the very human propensity to narrativize our lives. [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Life might not have many ambiguities[/pullquote] It also suggests that imitating life is art’s responsibility, that if something is more real and “true to life” then it is more valuable as an artistic expression. Ambiguous endings are in themselves artistic interpretations of human existence, working off the assumption that life is a compilation of dead ends, false starts, and uncertainty. And sure, that might be true, as these situations do happen. But equally part of the human experience, however, is that we create a narrative arc out of our own lives both while we live them and as we look back. That is, we often create narrative sense out of those dead ends, that perhaps they were not so dead. Or perhaps we choose to view a false start as the beginning of a story instead of the end of one. Stories that end neatly, whether that ending is happy or tragic, are equally powerful and accurate ways to tell a story because of the human ability to generate structure. While literature exists in order to mirror and comment on life, it also creates in the vacuum of the page the conditions and dimensions through which we experience it. The perception of a life experienced as a narrative with a neat ending is just as legitimate and real as the perception of a life experienced in ambiguities.

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Ambiguous endings often challenge the validity of neat endings but without, however, engaging those neat endings in a critical way. Instead they provide the narrative opposite, the open ending that says both, “What do you think happens next?” and “Does it even matter?”

While the latter is a difficult question to answer, I, personally, am inclined to say yes because whatever the ambiguous ending pretends that it is offering, it is also denying that our daily lives are maintained by narrative structure, even in the most mundane of ways.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “Does it even matter?”[/pullquote]

We get up, go to work, and come home. We go on vacation, we fall in love, we get married, we have kids, or maybe we do none of these things. We own a business, we get in an argument, we work it out, or maybe we don’t. We find order, or at the very least, we apply it. Neat endings are real and valid because we make them real.

I am loath, however, to judge ambiguous endings too harshly because they represent in themselves a fascinating terminus of thought. In a move that rejects and disowns standard narrative denouement, they offer an interpretation of human experience that places less value on the ending, instead investing everything on getting there, which is both fair and probably wise. They also suggest that the idea of endings is something of a delusion, a product of human invention.

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Of course, they are probably right, but just because something is a delusion does not necessarily make it not real. Does it matter if the top stops spinning? What are the realities borne of either option? And why do we care so much?

A terribly ambiguous ending, I know. But what did you expect?

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Roxanne Gentry
Roxanne Gentry is a writer, blogger, and academic-in-training. A student of literature and history, she has—so far—studied at UW-Madison and the University of Edinburgh, and will happily be in some version of school forever. When not writing about reading, she indulges her fondness for television and period dramas and knits very badly.
  • Adam DiPiazza

    I like ambiguous endings about as much as I like cats named “Steve.” Make of that what you will.