The Last Chapter
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
IT is maliciously said that the feminine reader is accustomed to treat the last chapter of a novel as a preface. She believes that here the flavor of the story is concentrated. If it be to her taste, she will straightway read the book, regardless of dinner-bells or callers. If not, ten minutes are her only loss. Fearful of being inveigled into unnecessary reading, she wishes to make sure that the game is worth the candle. The recommendation of friends is unreliable. Book notices are sometimes wrong. The last chapter is a certain key.
The advantages of this method are indisputable. Given an innocent young woman, of moderate sense and immoderate sensibility : why should she be condemned to three hundred pages at hard labor to find in the end that the hero’s life is as prosaic as her own father’s ? Or if the woman be older, with rather more sense and decidedly less sensibility, — the type known among us as “a very worthy person,”— why, if justice still be justice, should she toil through thirty chapters to learn that the hero’s passion for romance is incorrigible, after all ? These are pertinent questions, and this system, which we will make bold to call the feminine, as opposed to the stolid masculine practice of beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, is one of the great economic inventions of this ingenious age.
But, unfortunately, the value of the system is negative. It prevents a shocking waste of time upon uncongenial books; yet if, by some happy accident, the volume is congenial, when once the solution is known, the bubble of interest is pricked.
For my own part, I follow the simpler method ; but recognizing that the value of the feminine system is too evident to be lightly cast aside, I submit with some diffidence a few simple rules for the guidance of discriminating readers.
(1.) New books in paper covers should be read after the feminine system.
(2.) When a brand-new author issues a brand-new book, the feminine method is very safe.
(3.) When the newspapers hail the author as the Thackeray of the United States, the Balzac of America, or the Fielding of the nineteenth century, the feminine system should be rigorously followed.
(4.) When a novel is suspected of a “purpose,” apply the system and discover the purpose.
If these directions be scrupulously followed, it is my confident belief that I shall deserve the lasting gratitude of every reader who would save time, trouble, and vexation of spirit.
Thus I admit the typical last chapter has its legitimate use. But surely it is not for this that authors add their smooth explanation of the past, their elaborate horoscope of the future, their public scrutiny into lives that have passed beyond the limits of their story. Their purpose is to gratify the people, not to do honor to their craft. As the component part of a work of art, the weakness of the traditional last chapter is but too evident. When once we have reached the climax, we are straightway tempted to close the book. There the story ends. The curtain drops. Gold and tinsel vanish. The actors become men and women much like the rest of us. To describe them further is mere gossip.
Many a successful author knows this in his heart. But if, regardless of his reader’s curiosity, he carefully omit the closing sketch of a paternal hero and a domesticated heroine, then “ Give us a sequel ! ” is at once the cry. With halfassumed reluctance, the complacent author yields. In due time the sequel is brought forth. Everybody reads it. The Sunday newspapers predict undying fame. The original is surpassed, they say, the author has outdone himself. A year later the very title is on the verge of oblivion. Indeed, the failure of the sequel is proverbial, for David Balfour and the romances of Dumas merely serve to prove the rule.
But, most commonly, the author holds nothing back, and the last chapter is given to the reader in all its relentless accuracy. Let us take a few familiar examples. It is, for instance, to a last chapter that we owe the description of Daniel Deronda’s wedding in the very heart of Jewry, and willy-nilly we must read of Mira “ glowing like a dark tipped yet delicate ivory-tinted flower in the warm sunlight of success.” “ What in the name of satiety is the need of this ! ” one exclaims involuntarily. But here the reader will say that I am prejudiced ; that my thoughts are fixed on Gwendolen ; that I never really appreciated Mira ; that this last vignette of the sentimental Jewess, surrounded by the whole Cohen family, makes me needlessly intolerant. Lest these charges be thought too plausible, I will adduce a fairer instance.
The conclusion of Jane Eyre purports to be written by the heroine ten years after her marriage with Rochester. What has she to tell us? “ I know no weariness of my Edward’s society. . . . We talk, I believe, all day.”(Bless us, of course they did, or she had not been Jane Eyre nor he Rochester.) “ Diana and Mary Rivers are both married.” (We guessed as much.) “My Edward is no longer stone blind.” (Here, it is true, is news, but might it not have been hinted to us before ?)
Even Hawthorne, who was not wont to swerve from literary ideals, was badgered by public curiosity into some reluctant explanations. The Marble Faun, I believe, originally ended with the famous scene in the Pantheon where beneath “ the eye of Heaven ” Kenyon and Hilda plight their lovers’ oaths. Here was the natural and therefore the artistic ending; but the public cried out, and half a chapter was added. Hilda’s former disappearance is explained. Poor Donatello’s fate is hinted at. But, still insatiate, the reader clamors for the secret of the Faun. " How would Cuvier classify Donatello ? ” he demands. This is too much. At last the long-suffering author protests : “ On that point, at all events, there shall be no word of explanation,” and his promise is well kept.
One half of this apparent curiosity is in reality pure laziness. Like children who turn to the appendix for the answer before they do a problem, readers grudge the smallest claims upon their intellect or fancy. They do not read, they say, for mental exercise, but for pleasure. Print is plainer and more satisfactory than speculation. It is the author’s business to write the story, and a good workman makes his work complete. Why should a reader, buried in the easiest of chairs, and fortified against discomfort by dressing-gown and slippers, be obliged to cudgel the brain and start the imagination from quiescence, when the author can save the trouble in no time ? A pest upon The Lady or the Tiger! A plague on the ears of the Faun ! Better a thousand times crop them short than leave them hidden in this everlasting doubt.
Yet, to my thinking, it is just here that a chief duty of the author lies. He owes it to the reader to develop qualities which the world too often leaves untouched. Not business nor golf, not housekeeping nor driving, will stir the imagination ; yet if it lie fallow, how much is gone from life ! Once roused, the fancy feeds on its own growth, until it colors the world and softens the hardness of every outline. The last chapter opens a wide opportunity. In it, if the author will, he may lead the reader to the borderland of fact and fancy, and thence let him stray unaided. The first step taken, the exercise becomes a pleasure. The reader closes the book, but his thoughts run on and on, and in his mild way he shares the keen delight of a creative mind.
It is a hopeful sign of the times that many novelists of to-day have self-control enough to halt when their story is told. But, unhappily, their whole task is not accomplished thus. A dull story with the best of endings is but a crime without aggravating circumstance. To the vulgar author, the opportunity of the last chapter is denied. Long since, the reader’s attention has flagged hopelessly, and pricked as it may be, at the close, it will not budge one inch beyond the pale marked by the blessed “ Finis.” Again the mind becomes a peaceful blank.
I know no more perfect master of the art of effect in a last chapter than the Russian Turgueneff. When the acme of interest is past, he never runs on in garrulous anti-climax, sparing the imagination every effort; nor does he drop a curtain behind which It is impossible to grope. The few pages which end his novels, like the mists that wrap a distant landscape, vaguely suggest the unknown scenes beyond. If some incident subsequent to the story is necessary to complete our understanding of a character, — as for instance the death of Dmitri Rudin, — he gives it to us briefly, yet without reserve. But if the details we seek are the mere sequel of the plot, we find them hedged about with tantalizing doubt. What reader, as he finishes the wonderful story of Helene, does not pause while his mind follows her from Venice upon her unknown journey ? And who is insensible to the fascination of the thought that her fate may be divined by him alone ?
For such an ending to such a story the reader may well feel grateful. Creations like this are rare, as they are precious. Their authors are fewer still, but they are born to immortality.