When people think about incorporating theme, it can conjure cringe-worthy images of characters preaching to each other about the author’s intentions and cornily weaving in a “moral” that leaves readers feeling condescended to. One of my favorite comedy duos, BriTANicK, put up a video called “Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer,” in which they parody overused tropes in movies. The last line of the video has the hero and love interest sitting by the fire, and the hero says pensively, “Explicitly stating the moral of the story, and awkwardly working in — ” (beat) ” — the movie title.”
But even when done artfully, theme always sounds like something that’s more important to high-brow literary novels than to us genre types. I’ve found, though, that the fictional endings that stick with me most, that leave me pondering them for hours, days, weeks, are the ones that deliver on the story’s thematic promise. Bookending, character arcs, and plot resolution via a final battle all help create an ending that delivers on the promises you’ve made your readers. When you can include a thematic element to it, which is often accomplished through each of those techniques and more, it will leave an indelible mark on the reading life of anyone who picks up your book. However, the flip side of that is that you can create an ending that incites homicidal rage if it undercuts the theme of the rest of the story.
This was what sealed the deal of my hatred for The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I had a boatload of issues with the book that could be its own whole blog post, but ultimately, the problem with the ending was a thematic one. The book seemed to be proclaiming itself as a manifesto of the importance and worthiness of female self-expression and independence from male/societal constraints. But Edna Pontellier’s constraints, while real in a societal sense, were mostly a loving, doting husband who basically let her do whatever she wanted and children who she didn’t seem to care much about.
In an age where a lot of women were suffering profoundly a sense of powerlessness and oppression, Edna Pontellier just doesn’t seem to be one of them. And the final flourish on Edna’s story of supposed awakening and discovery was to kill herself so she didn’t have to go back to her kids or her husband. For a story that seemed to be setting her up as an icon of female empowerment, this took all the wind out of its sails, if the sails had any wind to begin with.
For every book that undercuts its own theme, though, there are many that set up an ending to engrave its message on the hearts of its readers. Here are some stories that delivered on their themes, and then some:
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (film): While Indiana Jones may not leap to mind as a vehicle for theme, this film, like the others, shows that there are some things in the world that can’t be understood, and that no one should try to control. Enter the Ark of the Covenant, a relic so powerful that Hitler thinks it can win him World War II and that it melts a whole camp full of Nazis just from being looked at. But the end of the movie reminds you that it’s about more than just the Ark. In fact, the Ark is only one crate in a warehouse full of them, a grain of sand in the proverbial beach of powerful secrets.
- Animal Farm, by George Orwell (novel): Orwell is a master of last lines. In his iconic allegory of the Russian revolution, in which farm animals overthrow their human overlords, the ending sees the pigs standing up on hind legs and wearing clothes. As the narrator puts it, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” In other words, be careful not to become what you most hate in your efforts to destroy it.
- Come from Away (play): This is a musical currently on Broadway about a tiny town in Newfoundland called Gander that took in 7000 strangers when their planes were grounded there on September 11, 2001. The musical is magnificent, and the writer made the decision to create an epilogue of sorts that occurred on September 11, 2011, ten years after the terror attacks. In that scene, the characters who created such a sense of community in the midst of fear and mourning come back together to remember those who were lost and to celebrate each other. It’s a moving reiteration of the show’s view that tragedy can bring people together in profound, beautiful ways.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series): Since this is the finale that inspired this blog series, I’ll use this as my last example. One of my favorite moments in the finale episode is when Q is explaining everything that has happened to Captain Picard. Q tells him that humanity has only begun to explore its potential to understand the possibilities of the universe. Picard asks him what he means, and Q leans forward to whisper in his ear, then backs away with a smile and says, “You’ll find out.” It’s a goosebump-raising moment: the whole show has been about humanity’s ability to expand its horizons, and for one moment, like Picard, the audience can almost see what’s beyond them. But there’s also the implication that we wouldn’t understand the whole answer. At least, not yet.