Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture. You are reading my bonus ‘Afterthoughts’ letter, where we delve into the themes behind the writing.
This is the free version of my newsletter for all subscribers. I have recently reduced my paid tiers to allow for all budgets who would like to support the work I do here, uncovering the narratives of women. Paid subscriptions help me to continue to write and research quality newsletters every week - and the yearly fee works out at less than £2 per month! Thank you for reading 😀
This Sunday’s newsletter was all about ambiguous endings, specifically in relation to Emma Cline’s The Guest and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
I was interested when doing a basic Google search to find that many other readers had struggled with the ending of Cline’s bestseller. I’m never quite sure how I feel about an ending to a good book that doesn’t feel certain; yet I know it is a popular choice by many writers. Indeed, I have found that on writing courses it is often recommended that writers leave the reader with some work to do. That readers often don’t want the meanings or endings to novels specifically pointing out to them.
What do you think about this?
I get both points of view: whilst I enjoy a story with a neat and satisfying ending (preferably a happy one!), I also see that this can sometimes feel trite and unrealistic. Real life is messy, after all. We don’t always know if we’ve made the right choices, or if the people we have chosen will always remain constant.
Considering my own preferences for a neat and satisfying (if not totally happy) ending did make me think about my own personality type as a reader. I came to the conclusion that because real life can be a messy mash of emotions and disappointments and the humdrum reality of everyday existence, I look for characters within my fiction to make the better choices that perhaps I or others around me did not make. To be brave and go for that job opportunity; to always have the right words to come back to a critic or foe; or to just be a more spontaneous, realised version of myself.
This might be getting a bit deep! So let’s think about the opposite: the ambiguous (or often unsatisfying) ending.
In Cline’s novel, for example, it wasn’t so much that I felt the need to interpret her ending to fit with what I thought might happen to central character Alex, but more that I felt that Alex deserved her moment. I didn’t just want clarity around the ending, but I wanted to know why she was in her predicament in the first place. Where had this character come from and what had brought her to such a slippery lifestyle?
“What follows is a page-turning yet stomach clenching few days of watching Alex make bad decisions in order to find a place to sleep each night. Although I couldn’t put the book down, I also felt stressed reading it!”
Do you get this with reading? When it makes you feel uncomfortable, and yet…you just can’t stop. I think one of the things that kept me at the page, despite the discomfort, was the hope that Alex would shine through and change her life; that she would take some autonomy back and stop relying on the rich men who ultimately used and then discarded her.
“I felt a little disappointed at the end that Cline chose not to give any real backstory as to how Alex had found herself entertaining older men for a living.”
But does this matter? Does it enhance a story when we know the background of the character and therefore understand their motivations more, or is it ok if it’s a good enough story without it? Cline’s writing is such that it drags you into the story, kicking and screaming, from the very opening line to the last. I found this to be the same with her previous bestseller The Girls, a chilling novel closely based on the Manson murders of the 1960s. The eerie presence of the Manson-like figure at the centre of the story, and the young girl who becomes entranced by the other girls living on his compound, terrified me. And yet I needed to know if she made it out. I could not stop reading.
I also discussed in my piece the uncanny resemblance I found to an earlier novel of 1899, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Interestingly, one reader found a similar connection, plus related Cline’s novel, so closely linked to the sea and water, to correspond with other 19th century realist novels. I can’t help but think that although I obviously don’t know if it was Cline’s intention to do this, that she had read and taken inspiration from some of these earlier texts when she created her character of Alex and the hopelessness of her situation, her reliance on men to save her, and her proximity to the waves.
“What is most interesting to me however as a researcher into women’s narratives of the past and present, is that writers are still grappling with this idea of women’s autonomy and the ways in which they may be punished for their choices, particularly when it comes to the norms of society and class and gendered roles within it.”
Whatever Cline’s intentions with this novel, it continues to fascinate and intrigue me as to the way in which women are still using the narratives and tropes of earlier generations in which to represent the female experience.
If you have read Cline’s book, I would love to hear your thoughts on the character of Alex and that ambiguous ending!