Ending in the Middle: Closure, Openness, & Significance in Embedded Medieval Narratives (Critical Essay) - Annali d'Italianistica

Ending in the Middle: Closure, Openness, & Significance in Embedded Medieval Narratives (Critical Essay)

By Annali d'Italianistica

  • Release Date: 2000-01-01
  • Genre: Language Arts & Disciplines


During the past half century, critical debate about how narratives end and the meaning of those endings has become increasingly vexed. The flashpoint is, of course, the issue of literary closure. While many critics would agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith's definition of closure as the "effect of finality, resolution, and stability at the end of a poem" ("Closure" 22), not all would agree with her that closure is "a generally valued quality" ("Closure" 22). (1) While Smith praises closure for enabling a reader to experience a poem as a highly organized sequence with a unique design (Poetic Closure 2), Umberto Eco indicts the closural ending for imposing "a range of rigidly preestablished and ordained interpretive solutions ... [that] ... never allow the reader to move outside the strict control of the author" (6). More recent critical writings have rejected authorial intention, and hence control; nevertheless, it is precisely the authority claimed by the ending, an authority vested in inimical historical contexts and patriarchal power structures, that renders closure and narrative itself so pernicious to many feminist readers. (2) Thus, Alison Booth writes, "Not only does closure ... always appear duplicitous, but novelistic endings also have seldom been anything more than double or binary choices for most female characters.... free play appears to end for the objects of representation" (2). (3) From critics who attack closure as repressive to those who question openness--Wayne Booth, for instance, denying the possibility of evading final resolution even for literature commonly classified as "open"--the range of critical perceptions concerning literary endings reflects, in part, assumptions regarding the nature of language. Derrida's meditations on language in "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," for instance, identify fixed, authoritative "presence" with the absent center or origin of discourse, the latter "a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified is never absolutely present outside a system of differences" (Rice and Waugh 151-52). If we think of this authorizing "center" as typified, in literary works, by the closed ending, that moment when the design of the text is unveiled, much of the debate over closure becomes clearer, if still unresolved. (4) Accordingly, a literary critic such as Peter Brooks, influenced by Derrida, reads the "shaping ends" (19) of narrative as always promising and ever evading authoritative meaning: "Any final authority claimed by narrative plots, whether of origin or end, is illusory.... It is the role of fictional plots to impose an end which yet suggests a return, a new beginning, a rereading" (109). (5)