“The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and all who have loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”
-Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Since we just finished reading a novel by Jane Austen, I thought it would be appropriate to include a quote from her about the endings of novels. The above quote from Northanger Abbey is a statement elucidating a drawback to the written word as a medium for storytelling; that a reader can always tell how close they are to the ending of a novel by looking at the number of remaining pages. So perhaps it was that that contributed to my anxiety reading the last part of the novel; of seeing pages dwindle without any clear progression towards resolution. And perhaps that explains my subsequent skepticism when the entire course of the novel was suddenly changed and neatly resolved by one fortuitous instance of eavesdropping. But to be fair, Austen never got the chance to edit Persuasion, and she did employ an element that (according to David Lodge) is a characteristic of modern fiction: an open ending.
Persuasion concludes with this: “Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection. His profession was all that could ever make her tenderness less; the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.”
In The Art of Fiction David Lodge also states that Victorian publishers put pressure on writers to produce happy endings; and even though Austen isn’t a Victorian writer, the proximity of the publication of her works to the beginning of the Victorian era are close enough to reasonably suspect that Austen was under similar pressure. So to end Persuasion in that manner displays ambition on her part.
The purpose of leaving a novel open ended is to display a more authentic vision of reality which leaves the reader “with the sense of life going on into an uncertain future” (Lodge). Although such a concept is admirable, I thought that its use in Persuasion defeated the entirety of its plot. It was already mentioned in class that if Wentworth goes off to war again, they will be in almost the same situation as when the novel started. Not only that, but their situation would be worse than before: now they will be separated fully knowing the affection they feel for each other. And it would be unlikely that Wentworth would take her on the ship with him since earlier in the novel, he declared that he would never take a woman aboard. Since this hypothetical situation is now more tense and dramatic than the one Persuasion is based on, it almost seems like it would have been the better one to write about. And if such a situation is merely an implication that never happens, then why imply a more dramatic, nonexistent alternative that merely undercuts the whole novel?
But as I said earlier, Austen never finished editing Persuasion, so perhaps my disappointment with the novel is unjustified.