(Spoiler Alert: This piece talks about the endings to two James Joyce stories from Dubliners, “Araby” and “Eveline.” So if you feel your life will be ruined by learning the endings of these tales, well, you should still read this piece, but you should also consider yourself forewarned.)
This week, I’ve been working on a story called “Dead Uncle Joey” and actually have six rough pages, the opening scene. Wonderful. But as usual, I’m having trouble moving on from that first scene. My first scenes, by the way, are usually quite good, and the close to one hundred unfinished short stories on my laptop sit in silent support of this truth. The trouble I have is fulfilling the promise contained in those openings.
Occasionally, I deliver a lecture on audacious beginnings in literature, in which I talk about stories that not only contain sock-knocking beginnings but also go on to deliver on them in a big way. My beginnings aren’t as audacious as some of the ones I talk about there—Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Camus’ The Stranger, to name a few—but they’re good nonetheless. And I rarely praise my own work.
Yes, I know I need to work on that.
One of the reasons I have problems moving on is that I grew up reading and enjoying stories that were largely plot-driven. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In their most extreme cases, I call these stories Twilight Zoners, tales with twist endings that often turn the stories on their ears, usually surprising the protagonists and by extension, shocking readers. In its milder form, this kind of twist has more to do with the character, where the protagonist is the focus, he or she finding it necessary to change before the story ends. I still enjoy the first variety when they’re done well, though many fall into the trap of being formulaic and predictable. But, as I’ve said many times, and at the risk of sounding subjective, a good story is a good story. More on that elsewhere.
When I first started writing fiction, these Twilight Zoners were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. The trouble was I wasn’t very good at them. I could easily come up with premises for fifty stories, every one of them interesting enough to attract a reader, but when it came time to follow through, I fell victim to a wicked case of writer’s block. In order to be a jaw-dropper, I needed the perfect ending, and that turned out to be a problem.
As I grew older, my reading tastes changed somewhat, and my writing style transformed right along with them. I began to develop an appreciation for stories in which a larger part of the action occurred within the character. These stories usually ended with the protagonist experiencing some kind of realization or other life-changing event, often coming as the end point in a gradual character arc. The main similarity between this type of story and the Twilight Zoner variety is that the change is drastic, whether it occurs externally or internally.
For instance, in James Joyce’s “Araby”–not a Twilight Zoner, by the way–the unnamed young protagonist (dubbed Araby by some of my lit students) ultimately feels foolish for even entertaining the thought that he could gain the attention of a beautiful neighbor girl. What causes him to realize this? A young man talking to another girl at a carnival. Okay, maybe this doesn’t sound like a drastic character change. As adults, even though we might feel sorry for the boy, we’d probably say “Get used to it, kid. That’s life.” However, if there’s any of the teenager left of us, we may recall just how earth-shattering something like that could be at that age.
In another of Joyce’s Dubliners stories, “Eveline,” there is the marked potential for change. Eveline can remain in Ireland with her alcoholic father and care for her family, or she can leave on a ship with her potential savior, Frank. The interesting thing about this story (and the part that infuriates many of my students) is that we never find out whether she stays or goes. Yes, we’re given clues as to what she might ultimately do, but Joyce gives us no definitive answer. I have my suspicions, but I’ll leave it to you to read and decide.
How does an ending like this make a reader feel? Speaking for myself, I can say I’m far more tolerant of this kind of wrapup than I was twenty years ago, and for a number of reasons. For one, the ending forces me to re-evaluate the story. Whereas I originally suspected Eveline might leave with Frank, the more ambiguous end shows me this is not what the story is about at all. It is about Eveline’s life and the factors contributing to the decision she must make. Initially, I read the story in anticipation of the does-she-stay-or-go ending, but I soon discovered that the actual meat of the story was Eveline, her dreary life, and her inability to decide to whether or not to leave.
We can speculate, of course, as to what she does. Perhaps she decides a mere three seconds after the story ends, or maybe she stands on the dock, unable to move until she eventually dies. Maybe she’s carted away by dock workers. These are interesting ideas to ponder, but as far as the story Joyce wrote, they’re wholly beside the point. In another story, they might not be.
So here’s how this relates to my writer’s block: As a reader, it’s rather simple to analyze these kinds of stories and discuss why they do or don’t work for me. As a writer, though, looking at a story in progress, trying to force myself to commit to a follow-through, I sometimes feel like Eveline as she stands at the dock trying to decide whether to leave and face an uncertain future with Frank or remain and stay with what she has:
[Frank] rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Yep. That’s me, writing a story. Every time.