The Problem With Endings In Subversive Tales

One of the most important and difficult tasks a writer can achieve is to change a reader’s mind. One way to do that is to write a subversive narrative.

A subversive narrative draws the reader in, then slowly, using a variety of tricks, the writer reveals this isn’t exactly what the reader expected.

But subversive tales are among the hardest to write. One big hurdle is: How to end a subversive story?

Margery Hourihan (who wrote Deconstructing The Hero) offers some favourite examples of stories which successfully subvert the traditional heroic tale — the one which pits reason against emotion, civilization against wilderness, reason against nature, order against chaos, mind/soul against body, male against female, human against non-human and master against slave.
  • Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, in which the entire world is turned upon its head
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the others in this series, by Douglas Adams, similar to Alice In Wonderland in this manner, poking fun at the established order of things
  • Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, because it does not depict wolves and nature as the enemy, over which to dominate
  • The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger, because the story criticises the values of post-war American patriarchal capitalism
  • Peter Rabbit (because although Peter is highly-spirited, he does not set out to ‘win’ anything over anyone else)
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin, because relationships between women are completely independent of men and is about the emergence of new ways from the old
  • E.T. is about kindness.

Hourihan then describes why the endings of these non-heroic tales are so hard to end:

There is no thunderclap from Zeus or hot supper from Mother to signify approval of the hero’s deeds, the significance of the conclusion is often somewhat equivocal, and what will happen in the future is by no means certain. These stories do not imply that there are any final solutions to life’s difficulties; they do not evoke the ‘happy ever after’ heaven outside the text. The reader is left to wonder what Julie’s life will be like with her Americanized father and to wonder about the chances of survival for the wolves in the American north. Holden Caulfield’s future remains deeply problematic. Brian Robeson has been strengthened and matured by his experiences in the Canadian wilderness, but the reader must decide whether this will help him cope with his parents’ impending divorce and his own future. It is impossible to predict the futures of Tenar, Therru and Ged, but the one thing that is clear to the reader is that all will be changed utterly…

These stories demand active participation by readers and viewers. They demand interpretation and re-examination of received opinions. They demand the acceptance of uncertainty. But they reward their readers with intellectual, emotional and imaginative stimulation, with humour, with subtleties of insight, with opportunities to explore the perspectives of people different from themselves.

For more on mythic structure — or the heroic tale, as it’s variously known — see this post.