Six Theses About How Stories End


A beginning

You may not be all that surprised to hear that Hollywood blockbusters have trouble finishing. You’ve seen enough of them; you’ve sat through some gangly third acts; you know to wait for the teasers and the stingers and the Easter eggs. All the same, I hope you’re at least a little bit surprised, since you probably also think that open and ambiguous endings are the hallmark of serious fiction and auteurist film. That is, you probably think that ordinary people, the ones who didn’t go to liberal arts colleges, demand, alongside singable choruses and lifelike paintings of trout fishermen, stories with unambiguous endings—triumphal marches, high fives, freeze-framed exultation. And if you think this, then you shouldn’t just shrug at the simple fact that a great many blockbuster endings aren’t all that emphatic; that often enough, epilogue follows upon coda follows upon now buried peroration; that Hollywood, which hasn’t gone in for actual cliffhangers since the 1940s, nonetheless prefers that its biggest movies stumble in their final moments or that their endings arrive breached and unsettled. Terminator 3 is, at heart, the story of a good killer robot from the future battling a bad killer robot from the future, and if you were talking casually to a friend, you would say that the movie ends when good robot eliminates bad. But that’s not quite right, since the movie actually ends when the US military’s in-house computer network becomes self-aware and launches nuclear strikes on all the world’s major cities. Humanity’s near annihilation is reported, but accorded the status of a subplot or loose end, such that one could plausibly leave it out in the re-telling: Oh yeah, I almost forgot—we all die. Hollywood endings, it turns out, are compulsively multiple: A defeated Loki decides to end his own life and leaps contritely into the Empyrean; the same Loki re-appears, unrepentant and un-seppuku’d, not six minutes later. Silence of the Lambs ends with one serial killer dead on the floor and a second serial killer on the move in Bimini. The most important book on narrative published in the 1980s explains in its opening pages that plots “demarcate, enclose, establish limits”; they involve “boundedness, demarcation, the drawing of lines to mark off and order.” But boundedness is not, in fact, the condition of many of our most widely shared stories. Some plots branch and end partially. Or they end and then promptly, uncannily, withdraw those endings and so end up only weakly demarcated, enclosed on three sides, half-limited and semi-ordered. Allow yourself to be puzzled. Wasn’t dominant supposed to return to tonic?

…which is all to say: You may not care that The Avengers trails off with five superheroes eating schawarma in silence, but if you begin thinking hard about such scenes—about finales false, weak, and plural, as about post- and mid-credit sequences and their now wholly conventionalized rescissions, their ticcish abrogation of ending—then it will turn out that nearly everything we think we know about how stories end is wrong. On the matter of closure, literary criticism has inherited from twentieth-century narratology a set of fixed positions that actual movies and novels do not reliably bear out.

I would like to propose some corrections.

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Thesis #1: Modernist and experimental fiction possesses no monopoly on the open ending.

When revolution was attempted in France in May 1968—eleven million workers on the streets, French students in revolt against their home departments, speaking bitterness at their lecturers and mentors—Roland Barthes was leading a seminar on a single novella of Balzac’s. In January 1969, after a hiatus forced by the rebellion, Barthes resumed his course, moved to North Africa for a year, wrote up his findings, and then published them back in Paris in 1970 under the title S/Z. That’s a book we’re going to want to know about, because it offers what has been for many decades now literary criticism’s canonical defense of the open ending, though it does this mostly in the negative, by anatomizing a story whose ending it takes to be disingenuously closed. That story, Balzac’s “Sarrasine,” from 1830, is lurid enough to hold a person’s interest: In southern Italy in the 1770s, a French sculptor falls in love with a pretty soprano without knowing that she is actually a cross-dressing and castrated man; that mistake ends up getting the sculptor killed. In Paris, a half century later, the now elderly castrato crashes the soirées of the Bourbon Restoration, unnerving its smart set, sidling wordlessly up to its women, exerting a power few can fathom. But you don’t have to be interested in nineteenth-century French fiction to appreciate what Barthes is up to in S/Z. In most respects, the Balzac story is just a case study, an exemplum upon which to showcase a new method, which you are meant to deploy against whichever middlebrow novel you next read, though it has to be said that Barthes’s performance in this little book is so consummate—so expert and so businesslike in its expertise—that almost no-one in these last forty-five years has ventured to emulate it. For what most jumps out at a first-time reader of S/Z is its pretense to exhaustiveness, its determination to comment on the entire novella, which Barthes reproduces in toto, word for word and front to back, in a display of exegetical thoroughness more typically associated with constitutional law textbooks and rabbinic Judaism, as though the realist novel were getting its own Midrash. Barthes, this is to say, has broken down “Sarrasine,” only 34 pages in its modern edition, into 560 units, with the aim of identifying, by function, every one of these separate pieces, like a tinkerer disassembling a ham radio and carefully labeling each of its parts. Barthes’s book is in one sense just an annotated inventory of those units, though from out of these scholia, a theory emerges, as Barthes pauses every six or seven items to insert a short essay on How Narratives Work.

The theory goes something like this: When I read a novel, it is easy for me to feel that I am, as it were, listening to a single voice, that I am in the care of a single great storyteller. In many cases, I will take this voice to be the author’s; in some instances, I will know it to be a narrator’s. Either way, I reach for a novel because I enjoy being immersed in its sonority. Barthes’s guiding argument is that this view is wrong and the pleasure associated with it illusory, that prose fiction is always a welter of discourses, artfully rearranged; a composite of many voices; a chatter; a radio dial rapidly turned, fortuitously yielding sense. Thus Barthes, briskly stated.

Immediately, though, difficulties present themselves. For in this summary version, accurate enough as far as it goes, Barthes’s theory is hard to tell apart from rival accounts, and most notably from Mikhail Bakhtin’s, which holds that the novel is a plural genre, the literary form native to bourgeois-democratic societies, a play of competing and counterpointed voices, with no controlling perspective. That Barthes is arguing more nearly the opposite won’t be clear until you understand the claims he is making about literary history, which poses a problem, since on the face of it he seems to be making no such claims. Barthes, after all, doesn’t want to be telling a story; why we shouldn’t trust stories is finally what S/Z is about. The semiotician comes into being in the mid-twentieth century as the literary historian’s rival and replacement, as will be evident to anyone reading Barthes for the first time, wondering what to take away from the book’s spasmodicness, confounded by its collection of stop-and-go marginalia, its footnotes without body text.

But Barthes is telling a story all the same, giving a not unfamiliar account of the way literature used to be and the way it is now (or was in the now of 1968); and one of our tasks as readers of S/Z is to assemble its scattered historical claims and with them to reassemble the saga that semiotics claims not to be singing. Barthes’s position is most easily grasped, I think, as a claim about the rhetorical tradition, though this isn’t, in fact, how he frames it. Or rather, this is how he frames it, but in hard-to-perceive ways, by routinely calling Balzac’s fiction “classical”—that is, by making “Sarrasine” his signal instance of the “classical text”—and also by insisting that we prefer to any such paleolith a set of more recent novels that he calls “the modern text” or “modern writing,” which latter term sometimes mislays its adjective and so becomes just “writing.” For to call Balzac “classical” is to strip the realist novel of its usual claim to modernity and to associate it instead with the ancient literary education, the rhetorical education typical of Roman senators and Renaissance humanists. The important point, for any reader of S/Z, is that declamatory Latin trained its students to write in exceedingly conventionalized ways and this for a few different reasons. First, convention entered the prose of students when they were forced to mimic the good style of acknowledged masters: Cicero, Seneca, Tacitus. Second, any young  grammarian needing to stake out a position in some upcoming disputation was invited to scan a list of established argumentative moves, many of which recommended invoking the testimony of others: the argument to authority, the argument to law, the argument to rumor, the argument to common wisdom, and so on. Third, young orators were counseled to agree with their auditors whenever possible.  The classical idea is that when you step in front of an audience, your first task will be to reassure the crowd that you share with them an underlying set of premises and priorities—to show that you are one of them, a fellow Roman, a loyal Florentine, and that you understand the culture’s core convictions. You discern your audience’s chauvinism, and then you offer to reinforce it. The art of a shrewd speaker is thus to convince his listeners that some inventive and potentially troubling position flows seamlessly from views they already hold. In a literary culture of this kind, the best writers will be careful to submerge their voices beneath maxims and inherited elegance and the unchallenged assumptions of their own readers; indeed, it might not even make sense to talk about such writers as having had voices to begin with.

We’ll want to note that this position can be made to yield a full-blown theory of literary history, as when some medievalists argue that there was no specifically medieval literature, that anyone studying, say, twelfth-century writing is merely dipping at random into the essential continuity of Western civilization. Before the rise of the novel, and perhaps even before Romanticism, European art and letters were uniformly lateRoman, just so many riffs on the fourth century, discrete entries in the unbroken history of Christianized antiquity. If you find that claim convincing, then the task of the cultural historian will be to trace the continuities and small mutations in the European West’s common store of images and poetic formulas. You will want to study conventions and not authors or artists, on the notion that innovation or individual creativity didn’t count for much in Europe until Byron fled England in 1816. And with this frame in place, Barthes’s “classical text” can be heard for the periodizing term that it is. Indeed, something of this argument can be sensed simply by contemplating the many neologisms that Barthes proposes in S/Z, almost all of them derived from the Greek (semes, proairetisms, hermeneutisms), and which when added to the many Hellenistic terms he borrows unmodified (catachresis, asyndeton, cacography, endoxa) offer to transform structuralism into a twentieth-century ars rhetorica. Barthes steps forward as the counter-Curtius, writing temporarily from independent Morocco to lament realism’s fundamental allegiance to what he calls “Western discourse” and “Western thinking” and “the Occident.”  And with that, it becomes possible to say why Barthes’s position is, in fact, unlike Bakhtin’s, whose basic move, after all, had been to separate epics and novels, with the latter stepping forward as the great open and post-classical genre, willing to forego the oracular, soliloquizing authority claimed by the Homeric tyrant-bard. Barthes is making the case that even in the nineteenth century, innovation and individual creativity didn’t count for much, that writers like Balzac were still rhetorical—jugglers of commonplace, topos recyclers, weavers of purchased thread.

So why would he think this? There are a few different reasons; the pervasive conventionality of realist fiction can be spotted from a few different angles. Its heroes, for a start, get assembled out of routine verbal tags, which means, among other things, that you are going to have to stop treating your favorite characters as people. They don’t preexist the descriptions that conjure them into being, and those descriptions aren’t nearly as particularizing as we fondly take them to be. Even the most iridescent characters have been bundled together out of already existing memes. Julien Sorel and Maggie Tulliver are scarecrows improvised out of semiotic burlap.

Much the same point can be made about action. An attentive observer could, at will, describe any action in ever more minute and corporeal terms, off towards some vanishing point of micro-physiology, right down to the cosine of your briefly crooked elbow. A woman across the room has dropped her hands to her sides; she’s fingering her skirt on either side, as though preparing to check with both hands the thread count of hotel linen; now she’s looking at the floor—maybe something has shaken loose from her lap, just now, when she tightened the skirt’s fabric across her thighs—a contact lens? a bit of dinner roll?; and at the same time, her right foot has swung back behind her left, toes planted on the floor, heel cocked into the air, and her knees are angling outwards, left and right, yawing her legs into the exaggerated bow of a cartoon gunslinger, dragging her still unbent torso some eighteen inches closer to the floor. There is a serious question, of course, about whether we want to call such a description unmediated—presumably not, though it would be possible to rewrite those sentences with more math and less Yosemite Sam. Does more math mean less mediated? Again, probably not, but such a description would be estranging all the same and at least mildly autistic, the beginnings of a motion study in prose, withholding the summary terms that we habitually attach to such sequences: She curtsied. It is only if we keep in mind that fiction writers could if they wished commit to an off-putting literary Newtonianism, describing only bodies in motion, itemizing the hypothetical nano-gestures of made-up limbs, that we can begin to appreciate how important it is that they almost never do—almost never, but sometimes: Foster Wallace plays tennis!—preferring to burden their readers with the poverty of overfamiliar verbs, bringing actions before our minds already abridged, socialized, encased in their conventional meanings: He fell in love. The deed thoughtlessly named is the very stuff of old-fashioned novels, their cell form, as potted actions get organized into longer sequences that are themselves entirely routine: the tribulation, the quest, the courtship.

Barthes’s overriding point, then, is that Balzac’s novels are as conventionalized as any thirteenth-century allegory. Saying as much will now force us to reckon with those infrequent passages in S/Z where Barthes seems to be arguing the opposite point, distinguishing nineteenth-century fiction from what came before, as when he draws a line between “societies that are aware … of the linguistic nature of the world” (medieval Europe, apparently) and societies that aren’t (nineteenth-century France).  It’s hard to say whether this is, in its generality, an accurate account of the Middle Ages—one doubts that Angevin peasants were organic structuralists in quite this fashion, Saussureans of forest and field—but it is telling that Barthes thinks they were, since this bit of idealist cod sociology concedes to Balzac a certain deluded modernity after all. The old humanist and oratorical writing will have to mutate in any society as linguistically un-self-conscious as Restoration France putatively was—a society organized around science and expertise and institutionalized rationality, a society convinced that it is “truth” and not “force” that “brings an end to the confrontation of languages.” Literature itself will remain wholly conventionalized, while at the same time developing a most un-literary orientation towards knowledge or fact. Balzac’s fiction is in this sense at odds with itself, a rhetorical text become un-rhetorical, because not in touch with its own rhetoricity. The realist novel, in sum, is the classical text that does not know itself to be classical, whose suppressed classicism must be reconstructed and aggressively adverted to, which means, of course, that in a few important respects it is no longer classical at all.

At this point, it becomes possible to scan S/Z for claims about the realist novel’s innovations, and they are basically threefold:

1) Realist novels depend, no less than Anglo-Norman fabliaux or neoclassical threnodies, on stock formulas, but what had changed by the nineteenth century were the sources of fiction’s borrowed language, as journalism and the academic disciplines took over the role once played by mythology and holy writ. The point would be that Balzac and his fellows deploy medical knowledge—and history-writing and the psychology of the passions—in precisely the same manner that avowedly neoclassical poets deploy Trojan lore and minor episodes from the Second Book of Kings: citationally and at third hand. The paleontology on the first page of Bleak House is what Dickens has instead of a water nymph; the Megalosaurus is a second Cleodora.

2) But it is not just that the realist novel borrows this or that convention from fresh sources. Realism’s global innovation has been to disavow the conventionality of even its most etched-in patterns, to make them hard to see as conventions. Anyone reading a sonnet can judge for herself whether the poet has managed the 8/6 turn proficiently or not, and in much the same way that one might judge a gymnast’s well- or ill-stuck landing, which is to say: technically. The realist novel, however, does not invite us to scrutinize its technique; its objectionable virtuosity is to move imperceptibly across its borrowed idioms, to make quilt look like unstitched sheet. This is the moment to note that Barthes’s method fully carries his argument: The blocks into which Barthes has disassembled “Sarrasine,” sixteen of them to a page, are like shots in a movie—in fact, if you’re still trying to get the hang of what Barthes has accomplished in S/Z, it would be easiest to imagine a film critic who has taken it upon himself to comment upon every single shot in The Godfather, every close-up, every long take, every cross-cut assassination—except shots are ready-made and identifiable units and Barthes’s lexias are not. It’s hard enough for a film critic to get an audience to start paying attention to where the cuts in a sequence fall, but Barthes’s more audacious task is to insert those very cuts, such that one might begin to see the realist novel as a kind of montage. This idea might, indeed, force us to reevaluate Barthes’s use of the word “code”—realist fiction, we are meant to see, is an intertwining of multiple “codes”—which word choice has often been seen as furthering the case that structuralism and post-structuralism were, in their overlapping heydays, a kind of generalized cybernetics, an investigation into the world’s universal coding. There has got to be something to that line, yet one suspects all the same that S/Z’s profounder allegiance is to an earlier stage in the history of twentieth-century media, not to the computer but to the moving picture, in which case one might track in Barthes’s arguments the belated maturity of film criticism, able now to infiltrate the procedures of its literary elders, to suspend their accustomed prerogatives, and to insist that all pre-cinematic narrative be reclassified as proto-film. Upon finishing S/Z, we will have to struggle to read novels the way we already know to read movies—to read, Barthes says, “in the cinematographic sense.” But then perhaps this point is best made in broader terms. Barthes is not just commenting upon “Sarrasine”; he is reediting it, transforming Balzac’s decommissioned aesthetic into an experimental and twentieth-century one. S/Z is out to enforce a program, and its approach here is rather unusual, not just to hiss at “those who like a good story” or to attack realist prose for being “burnished” and “smoothed” and so insufficiently modernist, but to roughen and tarnish the Balzacian paragraph until it sheds its realist qualities and becomes appreciable as pastiche or nouveau roman, a miscellany of undirected text.

3) The other point to make about the word “code” is that it is in at least one respect pretty sneaky. Barthes says on the very first page of S/Z that he is no longer a narratologist in the usual sense—not for him the reduction of the world’s sundry stories to a single obligatory master plot, not any more. Such is the importance of Barthes’s ditching the old arguments about “structure” in favor of one about “codes.” Structuralism would instruct you to extract from “Sarrasine” its narrative skeleton and mappable grammar, on the expectation that the novella, at that level of abstraction, would be indistinguishable from any other story you’ve ever read. Semiotics, though, will make multiple what structuralism has just flattened, by spot-checking passage after passage, half-paragraphwise, and demonstrating that more than one code is chirruping in every one. I read out loud a single sentence in Balzac and hear him at once mobilizing a dumb commonplace from art history (what we think we know about Italian painting), organizing the novella’s action into a nameable sequence (going-to-the-theater), and inserting enough equivocation or engineered ambiguity that a reader seeking clarity will have to keep reading. This last operation Barthes calls “the formulation of the enigma,” and it’s the sneaky bit, because every time the theorist identifies a passage as contributing to the enigma, he is pointing to the incremental formation of a certain kind of plot—except no, not a “kind of plot,” because there is for Barthes only one plot after all, the mystery-suspense plot that he thinks the classical text strictly requires. The old narratological argument, disavowed on page one, thus reappears intact, and Barthes turns out to be a structuralist still. It’s just that “structure” has now been absorbed into the language of “codes” as one of its members.

The classical text requires a suspense plot, I’ve just written, though one suspects that this is the last and perhaps most important way in which realist fiction is unlike its medieval and ancient forebears. For the plot that Barthes claims to have discovered in all classical fiction is most evident in the fully modern genre of the mystery novel—“Narratively, an enigma leads from a question to an answer, through a certain number of delays”; that’s S/Z’s general description of all readerly novels—in which case the book’s unspoken claim seems to be that all literary realists are to a greater or lesser degree writing detective stories. That claim can be dilated in turn, simply by noting that the nineteenth-century detective novel itself partook of trends broader than itself, in which case we might conclude that in the protracted age of enlightenment, all fiction has shared its structure with science and philosophical system, posing questions and promising answers and stopping only when there is nothing important left to learn. At the end of a classic novel, you know who the main characters are; they have disclosed the important truths about themselves and so become fixed. At the end of the sensation novel, everyone knows who is and isn’t the woman in white; identities briefly up for grabs have been clarified and settled. At the end of the Bildungsroman, we know just what kind of adult this teenager is likely to be. Lizzie Bennett has to revise her judgment of Mr. Darcy once, but only once; their marriage renders Darcy legible and the revision permanent. Characters in novels will never elude their conditions. The waiter in the café will be a waiter still, David Copperfield a David-thing.



 A few notes:

-I found the opening image — “There Is No Ending” — here:

-The volume I refer to as “the most important book on narrative published in the 1980s” is Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot (1984).

-All quotations from Barthes come from Richard Miller’s 1974 translation of S/Z, except that I have rendered as “classical” the adjective that Miller sometimes (but inconsistently) translates as “classic.”

-The backstory to S/Z is detailed in Louis-Jean Calvet’s Roland Barthes: A Biography.



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