A note: there will be spoilers in this post, but I will save them for the end and warn you when they are coming, so don't be scared to keep reading!
I've been meaning to write this post for a while, and this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic finally gave me the motivation to actually do it. The topic was "Top Ten Sequels I've Been Dying to Read," and as I sat there trying to think of any (I was unsuccessful), all I could think about was those afterwards in books that tell you what happened to all those characters. You know, those sections that force closure and tell you what to think and are often sickeningly sweet.
I remember the first time that I ever saw one of those ten year later-type final chapters. I was probably about ten years old and it was in a Lois Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve. I thought that it was so clever, and was delighted to learn that the characters I so enjoyed continued to exist after the events of the novel. Over time though, my thoughts have changed to the point that recently, I've decided to skip such chapters if I see them coming, and end the novel early. Of course, I haven't had a chance to do this since I made this pronouncement, so my resolve may crumble, but for now it seems like a good idea.
Why though? Shouldn't I want to know what happens to the characters that I've followed for hundreds, or even thousands of pages? Sure, of course I do. But that doesn't mean that I want the author to tell me.
Remember when J.K. Rowling came out after releasing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and started talking about all of the characters and the stuff she didn't reveal about them in the books? Like how Dumbledore is gay, and Hannah Abbot becomes the landlady of The Leaky Cauldron, and other such nonsense, and people ate it up? The thing is, to me at least, if it's not in the book, then it doesn't count. If it wasn't worth being in the text, why should it matter? This is the same way that I feel about those final chapters - they have no bearing on the actual story and are generally just there for overly tidy closure.
By the final chapter, especially if I've loved a book, the characters are mine. I love them, or I hate them, or I'm not sure how to feel about them, but no matter what, they belong to me. I have my own thoughts about what happens to them, and I like to imagine their endings for myself, particularly if how they live the rest of their lives isn't crucial to the actual story.
Spoilers to Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, Middlemarch, and, unexpectedly, Battlestar Galactica ahead - proceed at your own risk.
As I've already mentioned it and its so widely known, Harry Potter is an obvious example here. After thousands of pages of the revelation of a magical world to which he belongs, Voldemort's defeat, and Harry's discovery of who he truly is, Rowling wraps everything up with a cozy little scene at the train station several years later, in which everybody married exactly who you thought the would when they were fourteen years old, everybody's personality is exactly the same, and the world is, apparently, perfect. Where, I ask, are the years of psychotherapy for PTSD? Or Hermione's discovery that in addition to being obnoxious, Ron is terrible in bed? Or the fact that the platform is not so crowded as it was in the past thanks to the decimation and incarceration of so much of Britain's magical population? Gone. A war and nineteen years have not changed Ron's weak sense of humor, Hermione's inability to choose between amusement and annoyance, or Harry's tendency to stand around and listen to his friends talk while contributing nothing. It's disappointingly vapid, and not true to Rowling's ability to find reality in the fantastic.
The ending to Cold Mountain is equally underwhelming. Four hundred pages of beautiful writing and plot culminate in a chapter taking place ten years later that is both predictable and hackneyed. He dies and she is left with the child they created on the one and only night they finally joined together (never seen that before). The other female character marries the only eligible male character around. All are filled with joy as they eat under the autumn sky. Been there, done that. Maybe I should tear the page out of the book, and bring back the possibility that Inman survives and that everybody can live balanced lives.
Middlemarch ended a bit more realistically, though the neat ending is still disappointing. Granted, in this case I didn't love the book itself, but Eliot's insistence on wrapping everything up with the details of what happened to everybody for the rest of their lives is tiresome. So many years cannot pass so neatly, especially after eight hundred pages of such complexity and depth.
Which brings me to the most laughingly awkward example I have, which actually comes from television. The husband and I recently watched all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, which, if you don't know, is about the nuclear destruction of a planet far from here and the few survivors' search for a new home. Within the last few episodes, they finally find a place (hint, it's here, but just at the dawn of mankind) and in the final episode, we get to see what happens to ALL of them. They spread out across the planet and settle (great survival tactic, guys), and then do weird things. One decides to explore the whole, unfamiliar planet completely alone without adequate supplies. One decides to go build a cabin with his new wife who he knows is about to die, yet finds this worth a permanent goodbye to his only living child. One vanishes. In this case, there was an opportunity for a great ending, dealing only with the future of the human race (that is, us), which they made super-awkward by bringing things back to the individual level and having those individuals make terrible decisions that make you wonder how the human race survived long enough for us to judge them.
On reflection, Daughters of Eve actually did this best. Some of the girls went to college, some married, one died, one ended up in a mental hospital, some remained unnervingly the same. Though Duncan wraps up the next couple of their lives in a mere sentence each, collectively she at least hints at the variety of human existence and the possibility that all does not necessarily go well.
Overall though, I'd rather the freedom to imagine the futures of characters that I have spent a whole novel or even series getting to know to an excessively short sum-up of what happens with them. Characters can lose complexity when their futures are oversimplified, and beloved stories can lose their gleam. When their stories end, characters' lives should continue, but in the minds and hearts of the readers not on a page that can never be enough.