My initial reaction to this question would be to say, a work of fiction should be an organic whole, and you can’t really love the book unless you love the ending. How a book finishes is how you end up viewing the book, and because the ending is the last thing you read, it stays with you and colours everything else.
Here are some of the most famous endings from speculative fiction (including a few spoilers):
He loved Big Brother.
–Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
I am Legend.
–I am Legend, Richard Matheson
He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
–Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
“How strange are the ways of the gods!” he gasped. “How cruel.”
–Soldier of the Mist, Gene Wolfe.
Good-bye and hello, as always.
–The Courts of Chaos, Roger Zelazny
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
–“The Nine Billion Names of God”, Arthur C Clarke
I have no mouth. And I must scream.
–“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, Harlan Ellison
A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR
I am haunted by humans.”
–The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
He climbed in and fitted the thole pins into the oarlocks, and after three strong strokes he was well out onto the face of the river. And as he rowed on, toward whatever might prove to be the true destiny of the man who'd been Brendan Doyle and Dumb Tom and Eshvlis the cobbler and William Ashbless, and was not any of them any longer, he regaled the river birds with every Beatles song he could remember... except Yesterday.
–The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
P.S. please tel prof Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul laff at him and he woud have more frends. Its easy to have frends if you let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of frends where I go.
P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.
–Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
How do these compare to some of the classic endings outside the genre:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
–The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
–The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
–A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
There’s no doubt a poor ending ruins the reading experience and will cause a reader to be disappointed in the book even if they had enjoyed it up until then. But what happens if the ending is just okay? Does an ending have to be great for the book to be great?
I don’t think the answer to this question is as obvious as it seems. Let’s have a look at a series none of us yet know the ending of: George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire/ Game of Thrones. Are we going to judge this series by its ending? Does it really matter which of the many options Martin has left open is the one he will ultimately choose? I doubt if he’ll choose a stinker of an ending, but after so much intrigue and drama and surprises, won’t we most likely feel just a little flat no matter what he picks? And if we do, will his choice somehow negate everything that’s appeared in the seven (or eight) books?
Is it possible that sometimes a work is so good an ending can’t possible live up to it? Kafka said that past a certain point in a novel, a writer could decide to finish the work at any moment, with any sentence, claiming it was like deciding where to cut a piece string. This may have some truth to it when it comes to character-driven novels, but surely it can’t apply to plot-driven novels? Or maybe it applies to literary novels rather than genre novels?
Then I started thinking about a number of my favourite writers and their works. Stephen King, for example, is one of the most successful writers of all time, but even his biggest fans would agree that most of the endings in his novels are pretty weak. His strengths are in the things he does along the way. How he portrays terror and tension, how he builds different elements into a powerful story, the characters, the relationships between children and adults, and his evocation of the time and place where he grew up. However, despite all this, his books often just limp home at the end.
Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series has every person who ever lived suddenly being resurrected on the banks of a giant river. The series explores the interactions of different historical figures and cultures. It’s a fascinating work, but the eventual explanation of who is doing this and why almost inevitably has to be a letdown because the setup is so brilliant. I get a similar feeling with James Dashner’s Maze Runner series. To me the revealed reasons the boys are in the maze are far less compelling than the story of how they seek to make sense of the situation they find themselves in. The journey is greater than the destination.
If you still think that a book can only be great if it has a great ending, think about how often you’ve ever recommended a novel by saying, you’ve got to read this because it’s got a great ending.