At the End

One of my readers recently posed a question about loose ends in a book-length narrative and how to know what needs to be resolved and what can be left slightly open. The question also included an inquiry into the effectiveness of epilogues.

A book-length narrative asks us to invest in the sweep of the main characters’ lives. A writer sets into motion a narrative arc, and as readers we have a right to expect by book’s end some sort of resolution. A question posed gets answered. Will Gatsby reclaim his long-ago love, Daisy? Will Atticus Finch successfully defend the wrongly accused Tom Robinson? Will Romeo and Juliet find their happy-ever-after? The resolution of a sequence of dramatized events, though, is different from the resolution of our characters’ lives. Gatsby dies by murder. The jury convicts Tom Robinson, which leads to his death, and to the danger inflicted upon Atticus’s children at the very end of the book. Romeo and Juliet? Well, I think we all know what became of them. Our main characters who survive the circumstances of their lives move on into their futures beyond the ends of their narratives. Nick Carraway, disillusioned, returns to his native Midwest. Atticus Finch watches over his injured son, Jem. The narrative arc has reached its end, but there’s a door that opens into the future, and we imagine how the characters’ lives will be affected by what they’ve lived through. The final sentence of To Kill a Mockingbird resonates with the future while keeping a foot solidly in the dramatic present. The injured Jem is asleep in his bedroom and Atticus stands watch over his son. Our narrator, Jem’s sister Scout, closes out the narrative with this final passage:

He [Atticus] turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

The events of the central drama have come to an end, but so much awaits Jem and Scout and Atticus once the morning comes, and the morning after that, and the one after that, and on and on through their lives which have been forever altered by their experiences in this small southern town. Those future lives are in flux and best left to the reader’s imagination. It can be quite effective, then, to close the central dramatic arc of a book while leaving the future for the main characters slightly open.

I don’t have any strong feelings about epilogues, but I see their effectiveness when wishing to dramatize characters’ lives at a time far in the future from the central dramatic arc of the book. Still, I should note that a skilled writer can allude to distant futures with succinct statements. Scout, for instance, walks the enigmatic Boo Radley back to his house: His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again. Just like that, the story of Boo Radley ends. I should also note that the end of a book, whether during the main narrative or in an epilogue, can be an opportunity to emphasize some of the major moments of the story. Here, again, is Scout, speaking of Boo Radley: He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. With this, Scout sweeps us back through the narrative. She even manages to recall her friend Dill and her neighbors Miss Stephanie Crawford, Miss Maudie, and Mrs. Dubose. She reminds us of Jem and her coming home from school and racing each other to reach their father. She imagines events such as Atticus’s shooting of the rabid dog from the perspective of Boo Radley, and as she does, she evokes the narrative we’ve lived through.

In short, the power of a book-length narrative comes from a certain degree of closure to the central dramatic events while leaving the consequences to reverberate in the silence that comes upon us after we read the final page. We sense our main characters’ lives going on without us there to witness them, and the bittersweet feeling we have when we say goodbye to loved ones fills us. On one hand, we’re satisfied to have shared the drama of the narrative with these people, but on the other hand, we’re sad to have to let them go.



  1. Rhonda Hamm on June 12, 2023 at 7:07 pm

    Excellent. Helpful. To Kill a mockingbird is one of my favorites. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on June 13, 2023 at 9:58 am

      It’s one of my favorites, too, Rhonda!

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