The reward of reading a book is a happy ending – or at least a satisfactory one. You read hundreds of pages that follow the hero or heroine through challenges, setbacks and triumphs. Surely love and justice will win in the end. It’s a letdown when you find out the heroes do not meet with the happy ending they deserve. Readers long for closure and resolution. Here are some of the most unsatisfying endings in literature . . .
1. The Great Gatsby. The reader wants Daisy Buchanan to leave her brutish husband Tom and run away with Jay Gatsby. After all Daisy loves Jay and she is trapped in an unhappy marriage. In a tragic mix-up, the husband of Tom’s mistress thinks Gatsby was driving the car that killed his wife. He guns Gatsby down as the innocent Jay floats in his swimming pool.
2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. After following Tess from childhood through the ups and downs of her life, she is finally reunited with Angel Clare, her husband and the only man she has ever loved. Okay, after Angel resurfaces Tess kills her rapist with a butter knife and runs away with Angel. But surely the court will let her off. Or not. Dear, sweet Tess is hanged, and Angel runs off with her sister.
3. Ethan Frome is the story of a good man. Mattie, his wife Zeena’s cousin, is a good woman. Even though Ethan and Mattie are deeply in love, they refrain from consummating their passion out of moral principles. Their only choice is to kill themselves. They board a sled and push off down a snow-covered hill and aim the sled for a tree. Boom! They hit the tree, but as a result of the accident Mattie is paralyzed and Ethan is crippled. Who takes care of Mattie? Ethan’s wife.
4. Billy Budd – what a guy! All the sailors on the ship love and admire him. The crew despises the cruel master-at-arms John Claggart who falsely accuses Billy of conspiracy to mutiny. Out of frustration Billy hits Claggart so hard it kills him. The crew and even the captain feel that Claggart had it coming, but Billy is hanged anyway.
5. Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a charming anti-hero who gives new life to patients in a mental hospital. McMurphy helps patients regain confidence and purpose. The reader wants Nurse Ratched fired and McMurphy and others released from the mental ward. In the end McMurphy is given a lobotomy and is reduced to a vegetative state. Chief Bromden mercifully smothers McMurphy and escapes from the hospital.
6. The Last of the Mohicans is a long book that chronicles the early British settlers’ relationship with native tribes. Toward the end of the book 2,000 Huron warriors massacre British soldiers, women and children. It’s downhill all the way after the attack. By the end of the book favorite characters are kidnapped and killed, and the final pages describe their funerals.
7. Huckleberry Finn leads the reader on an exciting adventure. He stages his own murder and runs away from his abusive father. He and runaway slave Jim share pleasures and dangers as they float down the Mississippi. When they miss the turn north to the Ohio River due to fog, they find themselves heading south into slave states. Tom Sawyer finally shows up and rescues Huck and Jim is freed. The reader thinks Huck will return to Missouri, go to school and have a good life. But nooooo! Huck rejects a civilized life and runs away again – this time to the Oklahoma Territory.
8. A Farewell to Arms immerses the reader in the unpredictable events of World War I. The hero Frederic finds love with Catherine, a nurse in Milan. After deserting, risking capture and execution, Frederic finds Catherine and they escape in a rowboat to Switzerland. Catherine becomes pregnant. Happiness is on the horizon, but nooo! Catherine dies giving birth to a stillborn baby boy. Frederic walks away in the rain.
9. All the King’s Men chronicles the rise of Willie Stark from good ole boy in the South to a crooked politician. But no way does the good ole boy deserve to die from assassination on the state senate floor by the irate brother of Willie’s mistress.
10. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter really deserves a happy ending. She has suffered imprisonment and public humiliation for giving birth to a child in her husband’s long absence. Hester refuses to disclose the name of the child’s father. Her plan to run away to England with Reverend Dimmesdale, the father of her little girl, is within reach. They almost make it, but Dimmesdale dies hours before they are scheduled to board the ship.