What are some famous stories that don't have a proper ending?
October 23, 2007 5:00 PM   Subscribe

What are some famous stories that don't have a proper ending, like the series finale of the Sopranos?

Can anyone think of well-known stories (novels, poems, movies, plays, etc.) in which many loose ends are left untied, even though no sequel is planned? I Googled around, and this term seems to be called "narrative closure" (but I couldn't find many good articles on it as a technique). Is there any consensus among movie/literature critics on when this is technique generally works or doesn't work?
posted by lunchbox to Media & Arts (62 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
james joyce's "the dead"
hbo's "rome" seemed to be pretty open-ended
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:02 PM on October 23, 2007

The Aeneid is unfinished. There is some discussion over whether Virgil left it unfinished as a commentary on the dark side of the Roman way of life or whether he simply died before finishing.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:05 PM on October 23, 2007

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest painfully has no resolution at all, though that's a large part of the point.
posted by milestogo at 5:13 PM on October 23, 2007

The last episode of "The Prisoner" does not make much sense, but the very end of the episode implies the whole series is a circle which is about to start over again.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:13 PM on October 23, 2007

The jury is still out on whether the unresolved ending to Apocalypse Now offers resolution in the only possible way by not offering resolution.
posted by fandango_matt at 5:20 PM on October 23, 2007

I can almost guarantee someone'll've posted The Lady or the Tiger by the time I've finished typing this.
posted by electric_counterpoint at 5:23 PM on October 23, 2007

You're letting me down, Metafilter.
posted by electric_counterpoint at 5:24 PM on October 23, 2007

-Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series (this is a "the series is a never-ending loop" ending)
-Quantum Leap (the ending was not necessarily meant to be the last episode; when the series was not picked up again they stuck some text at the end to "resolve" the series)
-Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series was never finished
-Asimov's Robot series ends on a huge cliffhanger
-Does "The Lady, or the Tiger" count? On preview, jinx!
posted by vorfeed at 5:24 PM on October 23, 2007

correction: I meant to say Foundation rather than the Robot series. "Foundation and Earth" is the one that ends on an unresolved cliffhanger.
posted by vorfeed at 5:28 PM on October 23, 2007

Twin Peaks.
Waiting for Godot.
posted by iviken at 5:52 PM on October 23, 2007

posted by biscotti at 5:56 PM on October 23, 2007

The Gospel of Mark ends with the women who have discovered the empty tomb of Jesus running away and saying nothing to anyone about what they've seen - and they haven't seen Jesus raised from the dead. Then it all ends with a highly unusual two-word sentence in Greek, which translates "for they were afraid. ...."

This unresolved ending was too open-ended for later Gospel writers (like Matthew or Luke) who supply appearances of the resurrected Jesus, or even for the scribes who copied Mark's story, who add all sorts of more satisfying conclusions.

This wiki article has much of the info: wikipedia.org
posted by Rain Man at 5:57 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lost in Translation has an unresolved, and beautiful, ending.
posted by awesomebrad at 5:58 PM on October 23, 2007

Wiki list of cliffhangers

I for some reason thought of the film Sideways.
posted by ALongDecember at 5:58 PM on October 23, 2007

On the lit crit question you also asked, Frank Kermode's book The Sense of an Ending is a classic treatment, riffing off of the Gospel of Mark.
posted by Rain Man at 6:00 PM on October 23, 2007

Rain Man beat me to the Gospel of Mark reference. To clarify, in the oldest manuscripts it ends at 16:8. Everything after that is probably a scribal edition, and there are several different alternate endings in the manuscripts. I would translate the last line "...for they were afraid of...." If this was an intentional literary choice my Mark, the point may have been to encourage the original readers to ponder why they weren't telling the story of Christ. What were they afraid of?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:01 PM on October 23, 2007

Anything by Pynchon.
posted by ohio at 6:11 PM on October 23, 2007

A slightly different situation, but Kafka's last novel, Amerika, was unfinished at his death. It comes to a grinding halt somewhere in Oklahoma.
posted by otolith at 6:13 PM on October 23, 2007

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
posted by danb at 6:13 PM on October 23, 2007

12 Monkeys is cyclical.
posted by mkb at 6:16 PM on October 23, 2007

Halo 2.
posted by robbie01 at 6:36 PM on October 23, 2007

"12 Monkeys is cyclical."

And amazing. Seconded for a fantastic screenplay and Bruce Willis' best performance.
posted by stvspl at 6:39 PM on October 23, 2007

Hitchcock's movie version of "The Birds". No idea about the book though.
posted by tonylord at 6:47 PM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Insect Woman
posted by Tixylix at 6:51 PM on October 23, 2007

The African Queen (the novel, at least).
posted by futility closet at 7:02 PM on October 23, 2007

posted by hermitosis at 7:15 PM on October 23, 2007

The X Files
posted by Gungho at 7:16 PM on October 23, 2007

C. S. Lewis' The Dark Tower
posted by spasm at 7:23 PM on October 23, 2007

The Story of O.
posted by alms at 7:26 PM on October 23, 2007

Hedda Gabler.
posted by hortense at 7:37 PM on October 23, 2007

More cycles:

The last sentence of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake wraps around to the first sentence.

"12 Monkeys" is based upon Chris Marker's much more succinct film "La Jetee" (1963 YouTube 1, 2, 3)

Also see the great 1940s horror anthology film "Dead of Night"

Unsatisfying endings:

Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom" is unresolved, at best.

Truffaut's first film, "400 Blows," ends in a freeze-frame.

Kafka never finished his most famous novel, "The Trial."

Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" beautifully falls apart as much as it falls together. The fragmented ending might be a hallmark of high modernist literature. Grand narratives and the enlightenment died after [the Lisbon earthquake, WWI, Hiroshima, 9/11--pick yr poison]
posted by doncoyote at 7:38 PM on October 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

.. Kafka's last novel, Amerika, was unfinished at his death. It comes to a grinding halt ..

It seems odd to mention Amerika without speaking of Kafka's The Castle, which arguably carries a much greater meaning in not closing in any traditional manner. The "untied" loose ends actually speak of the hopelessness of ever satisfactorily tying off human affairs and duties.
posted by wilko at 7:42 PM on October 23, 2007

Down by Law
posted by edgeways at 7:55 PM on October 23, 2007

Stephen King's The Colorado Kid. It just fucking STOPS. I was so disappointed.
posted by Corky at 7:59 PM on October 23, 2007

Twin Peaks, most definitely. But I have to disagree with "Cache," whose ending does indeed make sense.

Also, would the Wheel of Time series qualify?
posted by jbickers at 8:11 PM on October 23, 2007

A. Conan Doyle tried to end the Sherlock Holmes series by killing him off at Reichenbach Falls in "His Final Problem". But the fans and publishers forced him to resurrect the character. So, not a proper ending as far as the author was concerned......
posted by pgoes at 8:30 PM on October 23, 2007

Kafka’s The Castle actually ends mid-sentence, which is beautiful. He never finished any of his three novels.

Also I remember reading Stuart Little when I was young and feeling like it didn’t end properly.
posted by tepidmonkey at 9:08 PM on October 23, 2007

The anime Evangelion has rather a weird ending that I never felt wrapped things up particularly well, although the TV ending was better than the disaster of a movie.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:21 PM on October 23, 2007

HBO canceled Carnivale after the second season (and just when it was getting really good, harumph harumph), which ended the first of an intended three chapters to the story, but of course left a whole lot of unresolved stuff to be dealt with. I don't want to spoil it for you in case you want to watch it, but the ultimate effect, if you take these two seasons to be the whole story with nothing else to be told, is the idea of a battle between good and evil that will never end until humanity dies out -- there are only battles, temporary victories to be won.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:30 PM on October 23, 2007

Many stories by Haruki Murakami.

Memento was cyclical.
posted by divabat at 9:37 PM on October 23, 2007

The TV series Homicide: Life On The Streets, ended with the first murder of the series unresolved, an implication that one of the main characters had broken the law and the last scene of the series was similar to the first one (same situation and dialogue, slightly different actors).

TV series Space: Above and Beyond, ended with major characters, dead or missing as Earth prepared for a major battle against an alien enemy

It's probably impossible to definitively state whether narrative discourse "works", as it's highly subjective. Some people hated the Sopranos ending, others loved it
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:46 PM on October 23, 2007

"The Count of Monte Cristo" is sort of unfinished - that is, many of the characters have resolution, but it has a sort of "ride off into the sunset" ending, and the last lines imply that the character(s) that ride off into the sunset still have a journey ahead of them. (Sorry to be so roundabout, but it's pretty spoiler-sensitive. I'm sure you can find a clearer explanation if you look for a synopsis.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:56 PM on October 23, 2007

Agreed, Hermitosis-- the Seinfeld ending was awful.
The ending to Waiting for Godot is a non-ending.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:07 PM on October 23, 2007

If you're talking academic critics, I doubt you'd find consensus over whether you can even say that something "works."

I haven't actually seen it but Antonioni's L'Avventura famously starts off as a search for a missing girl but slowly abandons it and you never find out what happens to her at all.

More recently, Volver leaves a lot of things open.

I don't know that The Birds lacks a proper ending, Hitchcock resolves it in terms of the story, he just kind of makes it unclear where the characters will go. Same with Vertigo.
posted by SoftRain at 10:20 PM on October 23, 2007

edwin drood.
posted by juv3nal at 11:51 PM on October 23, 2007

posted by markdj at 1:05 AM on October 24, 2007

Newhart had a brilliant improper ending.
posted by cazoo at 1:39 AM on October 24, 2007

I think this question is very subjective. Infinite Jest has an exquisitely crafted ending, as does Cache, although not all the loose ends are resolved. Holy Grail finishes suddenly for comic effect though.
posted by roofus at 2:16 AM on October 24, 2007

The Picnic at Hanging Rock -- both the novel and the film.
posted by JanetLand at 5:35 AM on October 24, 2007

Almost any recent Stephen King. Cell is deeply obnoxious like that. Narratives don't need to end with a "happily ever after", but sometimes (as in this case) you're left feeling that the author ran out of paper mid-sentence.
posted by sarahkeebs at 6:01 AM on October 24, 2007

Oh, The Sopranos had an ending.

I would add the film The Truman Show, and some people think the ending to the TV show St. Elsewhere wasn't really an ending.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:23 AM on October 24, 2007

I can't believe no one brought up Gone with the Wind.
posted by Windigo at 6:35 AM on October 24, 2007

See No Ending at TV Tropes.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:58 AM on October 24, 2007

What was improper about the ending of The Sopranos, this superfan wonders? Life doesn't tidy up all nice and done, unless all the people who's stories you're following die. I wish more series ended the way The Sopranos did.
posted by agregoli at 8:49 AM on October 24, 2007

Don't know if Bret Easton Ellis always does it, but both American Psycho and Rules of Attraction don't have complete endings. Rules of Attraction ends in the middle of a sentence.

agregoli: The thing that really bothered me about the Sopranos ending was
posted by ALongDecember at 9:17 AM on October 24, 2007

There's a nice essay on the ending of The Soprano's at waggish.org. I will warn you that it's chock-a-block with spoilers, though. And not just for The Soprano's.

For your pleasure I will quote here the first two sentences of the essay: "The finale of The Sopranos was only the latest usage of a trope that has become a staple of American fiction since its popular inception in Ambrose Bierce's 1890 story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". (If you haven't read the story, go read it first.) "
posted by clockwork at 9:27 AM on October 24, 2007

I can't believe no one's mentioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail yet!

I love the last episode of My So-Called Life. I'm not sure if the episode was written to be the finale, since the show got cancelled after one season, but it's a wonderful non-ending ending point.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:16 AM on October 24, 2007

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe does not really end in a satisfactory way either. Instead, when you finish reading it you're left with the realization that something much deeper was going on.
posted by Harry at 11:28 AM on October 24, 2007

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
posted by kirkaracha at 12:21 PM on October 24, 2007

Following the Equator by Mark Twain has a story at the end of chapter 2 about John Brown and Mary Taylor.
posted by garlic at 12:55 PM on October 24, 2007

oh! And I can't believe I forgot about the original Italian Job. Talk about a cliff-hanger! And as long as we're in Michael Caine territory, Get Carter also has a jarringly unexpected ending.
posted by clockwork at 3:01 PM on October 24, 2007

"Blessed McGill" by Edwin "Bud" Shrake, one of the best novels ever. You've gotta have a strong stomach, though, because some of the ...
posted by Smalltown Girl at 8:55 PM on October 24, 2007

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