Stories without closure

The story of the Air France plane that disappeared over the Atlantic last month is horrible, but our collective anxiety over its fate made me thinking. And while everyone is puzzled by the disappearance, the plight of the relatives of those on board is especially difficult. They want, they need to know what happened to their loved ones, even though they know there is no hope for them to be still alive.

And in fact, this is a need shared by all. We need closure of the narrative of someone’s life. A father would grief even more if his soldier son’s body is not recovered from the battlefield. The family of a child who vanished without trace would suffer more because of the uncertainty than if they knew for sure their child is dead.

The same is valid for fictional stories we read. Closure is not just a mandatory element of a novel’s plot. It’s the feeling of finality that the conclusion gives to events, the answer to all questions and problems  posed by the story. It’s like Cinderella’s marriage to the prince as an answer to her suffering or Anna Karenina’s suicide as an answer to her impossible love. When we read a book, watch a movie or watch the evening news, we give special weight to the last events a sequence and understand its meaning through them; for example, the career of a politician. Whatever events become prominent enough (or are publicized loud enough) to become the final part of the imaginary plot of his or her career, they will become the prism through which it will be judged.

Even though some stories have an open ended conclusion, it doesn’t bother us if it there is still an implied ending we can imagine. Or, rather, that implied closure is our hope and projection of how things should work in a certain set of circumstances. But if circumstances in a story belong to incompatible universes, our projections collide, as if in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. If it is a fairy tale, we know it’s not real, but we also know its internal laws and an unexpected end wouldn’t disturb us. But if real and impossible mix together, we are left to suffer just as after watching The Swimming Pool (2003) or The Moustache (2005).

And isn’t religion the ultimate means of providing closure to people’s lives and their meaning? Their stories won’t conclude inexpectedly or in a wrong way; they would continue with a transcendental conclusion.


5 responses to “Stories without closure

  1. I think Anna Karenina’s suicide was a punishment for her crimes … Tolstoy was nothing if not a moralist. And he goes to some pains to show the insincerity and moral turpitude of Vronsky and Anna.

    Tolstoy was a profoundly religious man and that shows throughout the work. One major difference between modern literature and older works is that authors who are basically nihilistic struggle to provide adequate plot, probably because they don’t believe life has one.

    Epistomology, then, becomes literary destiny. Many earlier writers, meanwhile, write with more structure because they believed existence had one.

  2. Pingback: Fort Worth on the Web this Week | Fort Worth Renaissance

  3. Thanks, Sonja!
    I don’t know if Tolstoy has such an easy answer as “punishment for crimes” – he was deeply religious, to be sure, but I don’t think he gives punishment to any of his conflicted characters, metaphorically.

    I remember that there used to be a Great Classics reading group locally, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist anymore. It would be wonderful to revisit classics with no immediate connection to everyday life. If you hear about something like that, let me know! Or maybe we can organize it, if it doesn’t happen.

  4. danmihalache

  5. Yes, Michael Jackson’s life story is a good example for the topic. Thanks for visiting, Dan!

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