Sunday, October 16, 2005

On Ambiguous Endings

Two earlier posts on endings ("Finding the North Star" and "Toward the Light: More on Endings") prompted one of Wordswimmer's readers to respond with a thoughtful note about her own expectations in regard to endings, especially in relationship to Walter Dean Myers' Monster and Terry Trueman's Stuck in Neutral.

Galen Longstreth wrote:

When I read the "Finding the North Star" piece on endings, I began thinking of some books I've read that have intentionally ambiguous endings. Bruce writes that an ending should fulfill a promise, and if that promise is broken, "readers will walk away disappointed." Books like Terry Trueman's Stuck in Neutral and Walter Dean Myers's Monster came to mind as books that have ambiguous endings and yet did not leave me disappointed.

Stuck in Neutral is a novel narrated by a teenaged boy, Shawn, who has Cerebral Palsy. Whereas he appears to others as "retarded" because of the limits of his brain functions, he in fact has a very active mental and emotional life, and is able to remember everything he's ever heard. Shawn's parents divorced when Shawn's father could no longer bear to deal directly with the needs of his son. Shawn's father is so overwhelmed with his son's condition that he regularly entertains the thought of killing his child to spare him (Shawn) any pain or discomfort (and probably to spare himself the pain as well). At the end of the book, Shawn's father is at his bedside, telling Shawn "I love you," and holding a pillow in his hands (which readers understand will serve as a murder weapon if the father so chooses). In the final paragraphs, Shawn experiences a seizure, and we do not know what happens.

In Monster, Steve Harmon is accused of being involved in a murder. The book includes two forms of narration - Steven's prison journal and a screenplay that he writes as a way of showing the trial in the courtroom. We never know for sure whether Steve played a part in the murder. In other words, we never know for sure whether he is guilty. He is given a verdict of "not guilty," but not in a way that convinces readers of his innocence. He never says, in either narrative voice, "I did not do this."

Where does an ambiguous ending leave the reader? Has a promise not been fulfilled? Don't I want to know whether Steve really did it? Don't I want to know whether Shawn's father killed him? Is a book not as good because the ending is not tied tightly?

I found Bruce's piece "Toward the Light: More on Endings" very helpful as I was thinking about the issue of ambiguity. I took his suggestion and went directly to the text. First I read the endings of each of these books, and then read the beginnings.

At the end of Stuck in Neutral, Shawn literally asks himself a question: "What will my dad do?" It is the same question the readers are asking. In the beginning of the novel, Shawn tells readers everything he is good at and what he loves about his life, and also about his Cerebral Palsy. The emotional crux of the first chapter, however, is when Shawn says, "My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn't divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul - he divorced me."

After re-reading this beginning, I read the ending of the book much differently. Shawn is so happy to have his father at his bedside. There is a moment when Shawn's eyes (the muscles in which he cannot voluntarily control) happen to meet his father's eyes. Never have they looked at each other this way, and it means the world to Shawn. Whether Shawn dies during his seizure or not, he knows now how much his father loves him, and that is worth as much to Shawn as life itself. "Either way," he says, "whatever he [my dad] does, I'll be soaring." The ending is connected to the beginning, and in that connection, the ambiguity disappears, at least insofar as it could disappoint.

In Monster, we witness the jury giving Steve a verdict of "not guilty" and Steve tells us a little bit about his life after prison. But in the courtroom, after the winning verdict, when he turns to give his lawyer a hug, "she stiffens and turns to pick up her papers from the table." The look on Steven's face, as described in his screen play, is "like one of the pictures they use for psychological testing, or some strange beast, a monster." In the final journal entry, after the conclusion of the trial, Steve describes his use of a video camera to film his life.

In the beginning of the novel, Steve describes his jail cell, particularly the mirror in it. When he looks into it, he doesn't recognize his own face. "It doesn't look like me," he writes. "I couldn't have changed that much in a few months. I wonder if I will look like myself when the trial is over."

This statement connects directly to the very end of the novel, when Steve writes, "That's why I take the films of myself. I want to know who I am. . . I want to look at myself a thousand times to look for one true image."

Again, ambiguity takes a back seat, as we see that guilty or not-guilty are in some ways less important than how Steve will be able (or not) to live with himself for the rest of his life. How does he perceive himself? How has he changed and at what point will he or was he able to recognize himself again?

While we may have thought that Myers promised us the truth about whether or not Steve committed the crime, we learn that in fact, Myers has offered a different promise, maybe a deeper promise, about the changing self and one's relationship to one's self.

Have other readers found stories with seemingly ambiguous endings, only to discover after a second or third reading that the endings didn't seem as ambiguous as they first appeared?

What about endings that may have seemed clear-cut... only to grow more ambiguous over time?

Why not share your experiences--and your expectations of what makes a satisfying ending-- with
Wordswimmer, too?

For more on Walter Dean Myers and Monster, check out and also

For more on Terry Trueman and Stuck in Neutral, take a look at an interview that appears at

P.S. Thanks, Galen, for contributing your insights on endings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Galen Longstreth's discussions of ambiguity in "Monster," by Walter Dean Myers, was pithy. In the end Galen seems to decide Monster was not so ambiguous after all.

Galen says "while we may have thought Myers promised us the truth about whether or not Steve committed the crime, we learn that in fact, Myers has offered a different promise, maybe a deeper promise, about the changing self and one's relationship to self."

I thought Galen's 'promise achieved' was a little too vague. With all the evidence seemingly strongly against the main character, Steve, right up till the end as I recall, and no real evidence ever given that might exonerate him, he's found not guilty. I thought the reader should at least be given some justification that the jury's decision wasn't a possible miscarriage of justice. It's fine to say that Steve has been changed by his experience, but the entire tension throughout the book is built on whether or not he was guilty. I still don't care for the ending.

Great discussion, though, Galen.

Okay, I'm out of here,