Tolerating Ambiguity: Endings

Long ago I remember being delighted when someone at a teaching history conference spoke about tolerating ambiguity, the idea that as we develop we learn to do this more and more. This speaker noted that learning to do history was learning to tolerate ambiguity, to manage to live with no one answer, to appreciate that there were multiple reasons (some conflicting) for behaviors and actions in the past.  I was reminded of this recently when participating in a conversation about a forthcoming book with an ambiguous ending.

Now endings are hard — real ones and those in books. I can think of some authors who write such wonderful books that I forgive them their mediocre endings. Let me give you one well-known example — Lewis Carroll. If you haven’t noticed already, the title of this blog is a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of my all-time favorite books.  And what you may not know is that the ending of that fabulous book is dreadful. Not only does it turn out that Alice’s adventures were all a dream, but then the author dithers on in the most dreadful and sentimental way. I have long learned to simply ignore this and love the rest. After all,  at least it is clear and complete. There is no question about what happens to Alice at the end of her adventures (she gets out with her head intact and goes off for tea:).

Now my 4th graders are fine with the ending of Alice’s Adventures because the whole thing is pretty plotless and the fun is in the individual episodes and craziness.  But they tend not to be so satisfied with the ending of Stuart Little.  If you don’t know it (spoiler alert;), the book ends with Stuart heading off to look for his friend Margalo. That he hasn’t found her by the end, stuns many children, frustrates them, and sometimes enrages them. I’ve had kids often write their own endings. In my experience, the kids who are fine with the ending are those that are reading at a more advanced level, kids who are thinking beyond their peers, who can tolerate that open ending.

And what about series? The book that provoked this line of thought for me is Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman, coming this March. It has a very intriguing plot toying with the line between real and fantasy and the ending leaves questions hanging. Now I read it thinking it was a stand-alone book, but subsequently learned it is the first in a trilogy. And that makes me look at it differently. And I’m guessing child readers will too. Would they be satisfied completely with the ending if they thought that was it? Myself, I’m glad to know that there will be more as there are some mighty tantalizing threads left dangling — one quite major.  Also, the audience for this book is older, kids on the cusp of adolescence — are they at a different developmental point than 9 year-olds reading Stuart Little? That is, do they tolerate ambiguous endings differently than younger kids?

So here I am left with a few questions:

  • Is our ability to tolerate ambiguity in endings developmental or personal? That is, do we learn to tolerate as we get older or is it something more about personal taste?
  • Do we respond differently to a particular book’s ambiguous ending if we know it is the first in a series?  How about child readers?
  • Do younger children tolerate open endings more than older? Or vice versa?

Thoughts?

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4 responses to “Tolerating Ambiguity: Endings

  1. First off, thank you for reading THE RIVERMAN, Monica. I love this post because I think about people’s reactions to endings A LOT. I even wrote my own post about it (linked below). In my eyes, it’s both personal and developmental. Kids I talk to ALWAYS have questions about “what happens next,” no matter how neat and tidy a story is. When they love a story, they want it to keep going, as publishers of profitable series are well aware. But…and this is a big BUT…I find adults are often more bothered by endings that don’t conform to their expectations. With age, we sometimes become more accepting of ambiguity (I certainly have), and sometimes more frustrated by it. We become set in our view of what a proper story should be. Adults who are frustrated by an ending rarely go back to re-read the book and see it with new eyes. But a lot of kids are re-readers (it helps that they don’t have jobs and kids to raise and 1,000-title-long to-be-read shelves on goodreads). So it’s exciting for middle grade and YA authors who like to experiment with unconventional endings. I’ve been intentionally tight-lipped about what’s coming next in the world of THE RIVERMAN because I believe every book should stand on its own and I love discussions like this. Perhaps that’s unwise. But I’ll risk a little head-scratching in the name of a good surprise or two.

    http://aaronstarmer.com/blog/2013/04/and-then-we-came-to-the-black-licorice/

  2. Aaron, how great that you are here to respond. I’m intrigued by the thought that adults become more rigid and intolerant of ambiguity with age. For myself, I feel the more I know the less certain I am, but I can see others going in the other direction with this. And thanks for the link to your post about endings. Makes me want to go off and read The Only Ones pronto to see how you ended it! And also, I definitely want to get some kids reading The Riverman so I can get their take on this. Fascinating. (Reminds me a bit of a long ago article I did on humor and how we respond to it so differently.)

    Also, I posted this on the childlit list serve and the responses there have been very interesting too.

  3. This is kind of a long comment, and I hope you’ll forgive me, but I love ambiguous endings. LOVE THEM. I love books that depend as much on the reader’s participation as books with ambiguous endings do. It takes a special kind of art to pull them off, and I say bully for those who can. Maybe one day I’ll learn how. In the meantime…

    This discussion reminds me of a school visit I did once. It was a fifth grade class, and I can’t remember how we got on the subject, but we started talking about endings, and one of the kids mentioned The Giver. No lie, every hand in the room shot up. They all had strong feelings about the ending, which was fortunate because at the time I hadn’t read it and all I could do was keep the conversation going. We wound up spending about half of my time with that class on that topic, and it was fascinating.

    There were plenty of kids who’d loved it, of course, and some for whom the ambiguous ending wasn’t at all a problem–it was a puzzle to be worked out, a challenge to be conquered. Of the kids who were unsettled by the ending, some (of course) were bothered by the possibility that Jonas and Gabe didn’t make it, but just as many were simply unsettled by the fact that what happened wasn’t clear to them as readers. Some seemed angered to have been taken that far through such an emotional series of events and left without closure. Interestingly, the possibility that they could, as readers, decide how they thought the story ended did not seem, by and large, to be a consolation. They thought there was a right answer and a wrong answer, and either they weren’t finding it or the author was simply withholding it. After lengthy conversations in class without coming to a definitive answer, they had determined that it must be the latter.

    Since that time I’ve read lots about Ms. Lowry’s choices about the ending, and have heard her say in person that she didn’t intend it to be an ambiguous ending (which is clear if one reads the companion books). At the time I didn’t know enough to ask if any of them had read the subsequent books, and whether that further reading had changed their impressions of The Giver’s ending. I wish I had.

    Interestingly, when I finally read The Giver a few months later, I absolutely finished it thinking I knew how it ended. I remember not being able to stop crying for about an hour after. It was only after that that I read the rest of the books that I discovered what I had been absolutely certain had happened was exactly the opposite of what the author had thought I would (intended me to?) understand. This only increased my love of the book, by the way.

    Again, sorry about the lengthy reply. Thanks for the discussion!

  4. Pingback: Giving Thanks for The Riverman « The Indubitable Dweeb

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