Endings – and empathy

When John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out in 1969 with its alternative endings, his publishers received angry letters from readers assuming there had been a printing error. In my new novel Given the Choice, I started with a female character who is complicated. She’s intelligent, creative and capable of generosity, but she also resorts to lying when the going gets tough.

My original ending for my character Marion involved her in only minimal development. She gains a modicum of self-knowledge, but significant blind spots remain and we are left to ponder the problems these may cause her and those she is close to in the future. I liked the idea of a messy, inconclusive, ‘real-life’ ending where people don’t necessarily learn the lessons they should – but the readers I showed my first draft to wanted more of an ‘outcome’ at the close of the book.

I thought about Charles Dickens and how he reworked the ending to Great Expectations when fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton complained it was too sad. Dickens liked his original ending precisely because it went against the usual novelistic convention of the couple marrying and living happily ever after. In it, Pip briefly encounters the newly remarried Estella and, while it is clear she has changed, there is no hint that the pair will meet again. Dickens’s second ending is more romantically satisfying. It takes place in the grounds of Miss Havisham’s house (where as a young boy Pip was encouraged to fall in love with Estella who was trained to resist him) and the final words – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – offer the hope that the pair will be united.

Literary critic Frank Kermode has a theory about why readers crave certain types of ending. In his book, The Sense of an Ending, he argues that we are born and die ‘in the middle of things’, and that stories with their start and stop points give us fictive ‘concords’ we can adopt when thinking about ourselves. What is important about the end of a story, Kermode suggests, is that we see the whole trajectory – a thing we cannot do with our own lives.

Given the Choice is set in the contemporary art and classical music worlds and one of my characters is a French painter, Jean-Claude. He is working on a sequence of paintings in which the subject stays the same, but where the effect changes because a new element is introduced, or because one of the components is moved to a slightly different place.

I realised that if I used this as pretext I could show how what happens is often the result of contingency – an unexpected additional factor, a difference of timing, an alteration in mood. So Given the Choice now has three ‘outcomes’: my original muted ‘real-life’ version, an ending in which Marion gets her come-uppance, and one where things work out well (if unexpectedly!). It’s the reader who’s given the choice of which ending seems right.

Marion is a sassy businesswoman and runs an agency for artists. Damien Hirst makes a cameo appearance and I had fun inventing a whacky art installation. One of the things that intrigues me about contemporary art is the way the nature of fame has changed. An artist’s reputation used to depend on talent, training and building up a body of work that was sold through galleries to private collectors. Today, the art world is closer to fashion and advertising with the artist as a marketable brand. The most successful artists shock and their work is instantly recognisable. The debate about whether art should receive sponsorship or rely solely on sales has spread into music, literature, film, drama, dance.

The timeline for Given the Choice is the period leading up to the catastrophic crashes that occurred on the world financial markets in 2007-2008. This illusory wealth offered an interesting commentary on the art world’s commercialism. Bankers and city brokers are after all major consumers. Another important character in the novel is a young classical pianist from Estonia who brings with him very different ideas about how art should be funded and indeed what art is for. A further reason for giving Marion money is that it makes the choice she faces a straight one. Unlike most women in her position, she does not (at least initially) have to worry about its financial implications.

There’s a great deal of stress placed – by reviewers, by prize-giving juries – on how empathetic characters in books are. I have to admit, I’m suspicious of this. The notion of empathy in reading grew out of the German term Einfühlung (which literally means ‘feeling into’), and gave rise to a definition of empathy as a form of projection. Theodor Lipps, for instance (and his approach is typical), describes the process as follows: ‘we experience the other’s feelings as our own, because we project our own feelings onto the other.’ It’s always seemed to me a dangerous exchange.

Hélène Cixous warns us as readers to guard against our desire to turn others into comforting reflections of ourselves. Instead, she urges us to venture towards the other in literature in order to expand imaginatively what we know. She quotes Franz Kafka angrily retorting in a letter to a friend that he doesn’t want books that will make him happy. In a memorable phrase, he says he wants books to be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’. I agree with Franz Kafka. If we allow ourselves to become too wrapped up in the characters we read, we risk wanting things to turn out a certain way instead of letting the book jolt us into a different way of thinking.

Given the Choice is published this month by Cillian Press

Comments 3

  1. I enjoyed your article very much. I agree whole-heartedly with your final statement. Books as a whole should ‘jolt us into a different way of thinking’ not just the endings. As much as I agree with Kermode’s theory I believe that the endings in books that people crave are also a reflection of their own lives at that moment in time. People who crave a relationship in their life will want a novel to have a happy ending, a ‘and they lived happily ever after’. This will give them hope that they will meet someone and have a similar happy ending. A downbeat, sad ending to these people would only verify their inner battered belief that they will never find a soul mate.
    It is an interesting subject and one that will be debated for a ad infinitum.

  2. Really interesting post. I think that as well as providing a sense of the kind of life a particular reader might already be wishing for, as Christopher suggests, endings (and middles too) can *change* us, open us up to other people’s experiences and to other undreamt-of possibilities within ourselves. I think it’s great that you (Susan) have reminded us that this is what books do, that as readers we should be open to that. When it happens, it’s a powerful experience: Kafka’s startling phrase about a good book being ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’ is perfect!

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