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Feb 10 2014

Revealing the endings of books

In a comment to my post on not being able to understand the mentality of people who deliberately spoil things for others by going out of their way to reveal the endings of stories, I was focusing more on films but also mentioned books.

In a comment reader estrevan mentioned that a fellow classmate in a graduate class took him/her to task for revealing the ending of Madame Bovary during a class discussion. estrevan had assumed that people, at least those enrolled in a graduate literature course, knew at least the basic outlines of classic novels.

Well-known classic works, are a bit different from films. For one thing, they have been around for much longer and many of their stories and themes are deeply and widely embedded in our culture so revealing the ending, as long as it is not done gratuitously to spoil the enjoyment of others, is not reprehensible. In addition, the endings of most of those stories are often not meant to be twists that take the reader by surprise. Rather the endings are often foreshadowed, even if slightly unexpected. So one may feel joy or sadness but rarely surprise or shock.

My own education was narrowly focused on science and math and thus I reached adulthood pretty much ignorant of almost all the literature classics. I only started reading them in my thirties and so would have been like estrevan’s classmate, quite clueless. But at the same time, if one reads widely one becomes aware of the main ideas of great books because they are alluded to in so many places. So when I finally got around to reading Anna Karenina, for example, I already knew the main story and how it ended but it did not spoil it for me.

However one thing I have learned in reading classic novels is to never, ever read the introduction to them. These are often written by scholars who try to explain why these novels are highly regarded and what the author was seeking to convey, and in the process they almost always tell you the whole story. That is a bit much. I now know to skip right over the introduction and only read it after I have finished the book.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    permanentwiltingpoint

    Yes. One of the secrets of a good life: Read enough of the Wikipedia article to see if you might like it, but stop in time to avoid the spoilers.

  2. 2
    Reginald Selkirk

    I remember reading a mystery novel by a still-living author. I figured out “whdunnit” by the time I was one third of the way into the book, but the writing quality was so good I kept going any way.

  3. 3
    Reginald Selkirk

    Wikpedia

    Flaubert was a notorious perfectionist and claimed always to be searching for le mot juste (“the precise word”).

    Which makes me despair of reading it in translation.

  4. 4
    Rob Grigjanis

    Estraven, not estrevan! Better to reveal an ending than misspell a great character’s name! :)

  5. 5
    A. Noyd

    permanentwiltingpoint (#1)

    Read enough of the Wikipedia article to see if you might like it, but stop in time to avoid the spoilers.

    Reading any wiki is a gamble if you don’t want spoilers. I hate it when I’m trying to find info about, say, a character in a series I just started, and the first sentence on that character’s wiki page is something like “Bob was a favorite character to many, which is why his sudden death in the third book shocked a lot of fans.”

  6. 6
    permanentwiltingpoint

    My condolations! Yes, I can see your point. Well, I’m reading Scott’s diaries right now – not much danger of this kind there.

  7. 7
    Kimpatsu

    I spent much of the summer of 1978 in hospital, and so read many of Agatha Christie’s novels to pass the time. I also watched a TV show about the life and work of Christie (who had died just the previous year), and in the course of explaining how show conceived her ideas, Christie’s grandson gave away the ending to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I had just started reading! So if he ever turns up dead…

  8. 8
    DonDueed

    You mean I shouldn’t reveal the end of Deathly Hallows, where Harry turns out to be a squib who can only do magic because of the horcrux that Voldemort gave him accidentally, and he has to make the ultimate sacrifice of his own magical ability to defeat the Dark Lord? Is that the sort of thing we shouldn’t reveal?

    …Oh wait, that’s just the way I would have ended it… never mind.

  9. 9
    ildi

    DonDueed: No, you’re thinking of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.

  10. 10
    chigau (違う)

    Beth dies.

  11. 11
    Al Dente

    Christie’s grandson gave away the ending to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

    The butler didn’t do it.

  12. 12
    mnb0

    “Well-known classic works, are a bit different from films.”
    I don’t think you do much damage by revealing the end of say Casablanca.
    What’s more, I think the best movies are those who are good even if you know how they end. I’m pretty sure that applies to Anna Karenina as well.

  13. 13
    mnb0

    @7 Kimpatsu: Agatha Christie’s Roger Ackroyd spoiled The Usual Suspects for me …

  14. 14
    estraven

    @Rob 4 — Thanks! And Estraven is a great character.

    I think I have a bit of a blind spot about spoilers because I like the journey better than the destination. Even with mysteries, I don’t care that much about whodunnit. I read mostly mysteries with complex characters and psychological motivations, excellent writing, a feeling of place, etc. So “spoiler” is almost a foreign concept to me. Same goes for the classics or contemporary literary fiction. Movies, too (not that I watch many).

  15. 15
    Dunc

    I don’t think you do much damage by revealing the end of say Casablanca.

    Given the recent fad for remakes of the classics, I’m living in constant dread of learning that a remake of Casablanca is in the works…

  16. 16
    nkrishna

    I guess I’m unusual in that 99% of the time I don’t care if someone spoils the ending. If it’s a good story, I’ll still enjoy the journey. If ti’s a bad story, then I know to stop reading. If it’s confusing story, then at least I know what happens, because the author sure as hell wasn’t telling.

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