“The interior life is in constant vertical motion; consciousness runs up and down the scales every hour like a slide trombone. It dreams down below; it notices up above; and it notices itself, too, and its own alertness. The vertical motion of consciousness, from inside to outside to back, interests me.” (from To Fashion a Text)
Early in his writing life, Anton Chekhov became convinced that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature. While writing Ivanov, his first major play, he complained to his publisher about conventional endings—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself”—and concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.” And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories. Even now, more than a hundred years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up. Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff — but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth.
Whereas most fiction, past and present, focuses on a character’s climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. And even when his characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict. His endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion. Chekhov commented on this fact in one of his letters, saying, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” A great number of Chekhov’s stories end by saying implicitly what one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.”
But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kind of endings favored by previous writers. They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.
In an article forthcoming in 2010 in The Writer’s Chronicle, I discuss a dozen ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings. Here are three of them:
Like Henry James, who complained that epilogues were characterized by “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks,” Chekhov despised such endings. Many of his stories end by simply denying the very premise of an epilogue: the possibility of knowing what the future might hold. Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.
The fact that these endings leave his characters’ future fates open suggest that, although Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change, he was also aware that sometimes lives change in dramatic and unpredictable ways. Chekhov makes this point explicitly in “A Story Without an End.” The narrator of this story—who is not-so-coincidentally a writer of short stories—presents two portraits of his neighbor, the first showing him as he was a year before, after his wife died and he attempted suicide, and the second showing him now, playing the piano and singing and laughing with a group of ladies in the narrator’s drawing-room. Witnessing this change, which he compares to “the transmutation of substances,” leads the narrator to realize the impossibility of predicting what his neighbor’s future life will be like. Thus, this story without an end ends with the unanswered question, “How will it end?”
2. Reverse Epilogues
Instead of ending with a reference to an unknown future, a “reverse epilogue” ends with a reference to the known past. “The Chorus Girl” exemplifies this mode of closure. In this story, a chorus girl named Pasha is confronted by the wife of a man with whom she’s been sleeping. While the husband listens in the next room, the wife badgers Pasha into giving her jewelry that she wrongly believes her husband has given Pasha. After the wife leaves, the husband returns and says, “My God, a decent, proud, pure being like that was even prepared to kneel down before this . . . this whore! And I brought her to it! I let it happen!” He pushes Pasha roughly aside, saying, “Get away from me, you—you trash!” Pasha starts to sob.
Since the story begins years after this scene, which is presented as an extended flashback, we expect what follows to “resolve” the flashback and inform us how the man’s cruelty affected Pasha’s future. But instead Chekhov abruptly segues into her past. The final sentence reads, “She remembered how three years ago, for no rhyme or reason, a merchant had giving her a beating, and sobbed even louder.” By moving backward in time, Chekhov implies that she has been mistreated by men repeatedly throughout her life and that this pattern has continued after this event and will continue on into the future.
3. External Climaxes
Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have. A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead. I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.
One way Chekhov creates an external climax is through the use of an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him. In “The Little Joke,” for example, the narrator recounts a “joke” he played on a woman who loved him, a joke he cannot understand—but we can, and do. He tells of tobogganing with this woman and how, as they roared down the hill with the wind in their face, he whispered, “I love you” into her ear, then pretended he had said nothing, so she could not be sure if what she heard had been his voice or the wind. She was terrified of tobogganing, yet kept on doing it—and even once went by herself—to see if she would hear those words. The story ends: “And now that I am older, I cannot understand why I said those words, why I played that joke on her . . .” The reader realizes that he actually did love the woman and that, despite his refusal to face the facts of his own emotions, he regrets playing the joke and losing his one chance at love. And the reader also realizes that the joke was ultimately a big one, not a little one, and that it was on him, not her.
Virginia Woolf has described the effects of these inconclusive endings better, perhaps, than anyone. When we finish a Chekhov story, she says, we feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.” But, she goes on to say, the more we become accustomed to his work, the more we are able to hear the subtle music of Chekhov’s meaning and the more the traditional conclusions of fiction—“the general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth”—“fade into thin air” and “show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial.” His endings, she concludes, “never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity,” and therefore, “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.”
David Jauss’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and been reprinted in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; Best Stories from the First 25 Years of the Pushcart Prize; The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002; and elsewhere. The recipient of the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize, a NEA Fellowship, and a James A. Michener Fellowship, among other awards, he served as fiction editor of Crazyhorse for ten years and now teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
From October 2008 to October 2009, Nina Sankovitch read one book a day and wrote about it on her blog, Read All Day. After learning about this project in a New York Times article, I went to Nina’s site and found some terrific insights into what makes a book great – so I asked Nina if I could adapt them here:
The traits of great writing are: genuineness, truth, fearlessness. Say it out loud: no fear. Let your words flap in the wind and light up the sky and bring in the readers, like a boat into a harbor. Write straight and true and without a safety net. No safety net! All the books I’ve read and loved have taken a chance and won. They won me over with their honesty and beauty. And I know the hard, hard work that goes into making a novel or a memoir or a short story or a poem. Only hard work and unfettered talent can make such beautiful and moving works of words.
An author who writes without fear – of rejection, of rebuke, of ineptitude, of foolishness or seriousness – can write a great book. If the writer is free of fear, she can go out there and express every aspect of a story, the smells of the characters, the sight of the places, the nature of the emotions, and the pull of the struggle being waged for or against the characters.
Why does greatness matter? It matters not only because reading such books is a pleasure but also because a great book presents the world in a whole new way. Not the whole world, necessarily, but a piece of the world, or a person or a thought, presented in such a way that the reader has not thought of before. Seeing an issue or a person or a situation from a new angle changes the way your mind works, enlarges your mind and enlivens it, as well.
A great story makes us care, heart and soul, about the movement, the struggle, the change. We care when the characters are genuinely portrayed, when just a slight detail can define a whole person. We care when the place where the story takes place breathes for us; when it is alive and it cradles or rejects the characters within its orbit: think of the Croatia of Josip Novakovich, the Brazil of Paul Coutinho, or the Ireland of Claire Keegan: “On either side, the trees are all and here the wind is strangely human. A tender speech is combing through the willows. In a bare whisper, the elms lean. Something about the place conjures up the ancient past: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel” (from Walk the Blue Fields). I could be in all those places and know someone who lived and struggled, and I am more, I am richer for having been there, having known the people and the struggle and the outcome.
The best books are the ones that do not follow a formula or try too hard to be a certain genre. When I read a book I know when I am being manipulated and when I am being told a truth. The best stories present a truth about life in any way that the author finds best, even if it is in lies. An author has to be fearless in just not worrying about the verisimilitude of the story, or is it too romantic, too gross, too quiet or too loud. She has to write without fear of refusal.
Between reader and writer there is a kind of pact. The pact is that the writer will lay out his/her genuine thoughts and ideas through the medium of the best words and characters and plot he/she can work out, and that the reader will commit to reading the result. I believe that in my year of reading my brain has become more robust and energized, and life all around me is better. The writer of a great book gives us, the readers, a new tank of oxygen, allowing us to dive again and again into life. Great good comes from reading great books.
Since finishing her year of reading, Nina Sankovitch has been writing a book blog for The Huffington Post. Recently she signed a contract with HarperStudio to write Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a book about her year of magical reading.
The essence of art is sensitivity. How does one retain the freshness of sensitivity? Answer: By working without worry, freely. How does one work freely? By possessing a technique which permits one to work spontaneously: it is necessary, therefore, to possess the elements of this technique. Meditation in front of the works of the masters puts one in possession of the eternal rules of art. Once these rules are learned there is nothing left but to know how to apply them to one’s own temperament.
— Andre Lhote, 1923
For this writer, the creative process happens in stages – and the final one makes all the difference:
The first is the molecular stage, that early collection of bits of information, what I find fascinating, unusual, funny or poignant at the time it occurs, whether I retain it in memory or in a physical form on pieces of paper.
The critical mass stage is next. The particles are vibrating on their own in proximity to one another until they reach a critical mass and a reaction occurs. The writing begins in a fury, raw data, raw memory, stream of consciousness writing.
Incubation happens throughout the writing when I walk away from the piece and it sits inside me, silently arranging itself, so that when I next visit it, I have made important connections. Then I edit and rewrite. The placement of events and observations creates irony, mood, pathos, humor. Events are taken out of the chronological or random order and purposefully placed, refined, commented on. Incubation can happen over a period of months or years, but also during the active writing periods, each night when I turn off my computer and go to bed with an essay on my mind. This seems important, that the essay is written only partially at the desk. Much of it is written while I garden or walk or lay in bed mulling it over.
Insight is the last thing to come, what the story is really about. I often don’t know until very late in the process, and the story is frequently about something other than I intended, if I let the piece take the path it wants. The telling phrases, observations, and reflections I add at this stage give the narrative facts a luminescence that only distance and learning can yield. I can look with relative detachment at my experience and see it for what it really was, and in subtle ways, infuse these small epiphanies into the essay.
Distance. Perspective. It can take years to learn how an experience has sculpted me, to tell the story, to locate its pulsing heart.
Editor’s note: I discovered these observations in Stanton’s essay, “On Writing ‘Zion,’” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, which I’m using in a creative nonfiction class at Fordham. Stanton’s insights were so helpful to my students that I asked her for permission to adapt them here – something I normally don’t do.
Maureen Stanton’s essays have also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review, and American Literary Review, among other places. Three of her essays were listed as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays; her work has received a Pushcart Prize, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in Creative Nonfiction, The Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review Award in Creative Nonfiction, among other prizes. She has twice received an Individual Artist grant from the Maine Arts Commission, and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and grants from the Vogelstein Fund and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Missouri.