I recently taught a class to twenty undergraduates called “How to Read a Story,” and, in the spirit of the course, now that it’s ended, I can’t stop thinking about the idea of endings. For fundamental to our reading was the notion that the finest stories stay vividly in our minds when we’ve finished reading them. This would seem obvious, except that I’m not speaking merely of stories that invite recollection, but rather those that, less decorously, refuse to end.
One of the works we discussed was Alice Munro’s brilliant “Fits.” At its end, a man named Robert is taking a long night-time walk in frigid winter air across snow-covered fields in the small Ontario town where he lives with his wife, Peg, and his two stepsons. The riveting enigma at the heart of the story is Peg’s behavior after discovering the bodies of a couple—relatively new neighbors of hers and Robert’s—in their upstairs bedroom, the grisly result of a murder-suicide. She’d gone next door on an errand that morning and her repeated knocks and then her calls from downstairs had gotten no answer. She’d sensed, she’d simply known, as she related it to Robert that night while they washed the after-supper dishes, that something “was terribly wrong,” but she’d needed to continue up the stairs and into their bedroom to “make sure.”
Peg was entirely composed as she explained herself to Robert, as she had been throughout the day. That morning, after her discovery, she’d left the bloody bedroom and driven to the constable’s office to describe the scene, then continued on to work. She’d said nothing to any of her co-workers in the general store. She hadn’t even phoned Robert. He’d coincidently learned about the deaths and Peg’s reporting them when he’d stopped at the highway diner for lunch and found the constable holding forth for the noontime crowd. In tiny towns such as Robert and Peg’s, local gossip is the valued social currency, but it’s assumed whoever has it will dispense it generously. To those Peg might have told, her silence amounts to a hoarding, something almost hostile, or haughty, no one can quite put his finger on it, but somehow a sort of parsimony that has left people wondering if they know Peg as well as they thought they did.
Robert has been troubled, too, by Peg’s failure to call him and seek his comfort. He’s rationalized that she was surely made numb by what she saw, and he’s reminded himself that she was by nature “self-contained.” But what he hasn’t been able to reconcile, what has caused him to set out on his ruminative winter walk, is a discrepancy between the constable’s words and Peg’s to him as they washed the dishes. She’d said that the first thing she saw when she reached the top of their neighbors’ stairs was the dead man’s leg and slippered foot “stretched out into the hall” and, seeing this, she knew she “had to go on in and make sure.” And Robert had nodded and said he understood.
But he hadn’t understood; for what he’d earlier heard the constable describe was something significantly different—a shotgun blast so powerful it threw the dead man “‘partways out of the room. His head was laying out in the hall. What was left of it was laying out in the hall.’”
“Not a leg,” the story tells us. “Not the indicative leg, whole and decent in its trousers, the shod foot. That was not what anybody turning at the top of the stairs would see and would have to step over, step through, in order to go into the bedroom and look at the rest of what was there.”
These are the story’s concluding words, made haunting by Munro’s detailing of what Peg in fact did not confront. When I asked the class for their reactions to the end of “Fits,” a young woman said her first thought was, “No! Don’t leave me here.” She smiled, but she meant it. She’d felt a sense of being left to trod the frozen crust with Robert, trying with him—and without the story’s explicit help—to imagine the future for someone whose love of small-town life and of his married life had been built on his certainty of the social vernacular and the predictability of his wife’s thinking.
No! Don’t leave me here. When a narrative engages us, we’re having a conversation with it, and at the moment my student reached the conclusion of “Fits,” she felt the story had cut off the conversation prematurely. Such is the effect of the endings I most admire: That feeling of being abruptly abandoned, stranded not so much in the story as by it; left to sort through its events with the scope of its complexity just revealed as it departs. Seen, and felt, this way, we might complain—as the student instinctively did—that it’s downright inhospitable of a narrative to take its sudden leave in such a fashion. But if we can at some point set aside our protest, we recognize that what’s at work is the admirable inhospitality of a narrative whose aim is to “compete with life,” as Henry James put it in his classic essay, “The Art of Fiction.” In other words, fictions comprised of unanswerable questions, ornery contradictions, deeply rooted inconsistencies. As life is. Quoting James again, this time from his notebooks, “The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together.” Put another way, we might say that James’s “whole” is the combination of that which is told and that which extends, untold, beyond it.
No life is simplistic, no matter how simple, and no moment of it makes that clearer than the reverberant silence that sounds when one ends. A narrative begins and ends in an analogous temporal fashion. Ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust. But dare we say that the best narratives have something like the literary equivalent of soul? A vibrancy that lives on after the story is done? Done only in the sense that there are no more words on the page? I think we do dare.
Douglas Bauer has published three novels—Dexterity (Owl Books, 1999), The Book of Famous Iowans (Henry Holt & Co., 1998), and The Very Air (Holt, 1997)—and three books of nonfiction: What Happens Next?: Matters of Life and Death (University of Iowa Press, 2013), which won the 2014 PEN/New England Book Award for Nonfiction; Prairie City, Iowa (Iowa, 2008); and The Stuff of Fiction (University of Michigan Press, 2007). His stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, AGNI, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Sports Illustrated, Tin House, and many other magazines. The recipient of grants in both fiction and creative nonfiction from the National Endowment for the Arts, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches literature at Bennington College. (updated 12/2015)