Fiction writer David Jauss analyzes Chekhov’s endings and explains why they were revolutionary at the time — and what we can learn from them today:
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.
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