Last Things: Essays on Ends and Endings

by Gavin Hopps (Volume editor) Stella Neumann (Volume editor) Sven Strasen (Volume editor) Peter Wenzel (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 234 Pages


This multidisciplinary collection brings together scholars from the fields of literature, theology and linguistics who question and extend our taken-for-granted conceptions of The End. It focuses on the ways in which endings are formally signaled in literature, and sets these alongside parallel studies in journalism and film. However, it is also concerned with larger philosophical and historical notions of closure, impermanence, rupture and apocalypse as well as the possibilities of «posthumous» being. It gives examples from fairytales, Byron, Longfellow, Dillard, Barnes and South African writers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Gavin Hopps, Trevor Hart, and Peter Wenzel
  • Endings in Literature: A Survey: Peter Wenzel (Aachen)
  • 1. Introduction: Why Endings Matter
  • 2. Research on Endings: An Underdeveloped Field of Study
  • 3. Types and Typologies of Endings
  • Categories of Closure
  • 4. Endings in a Cognitive Perspective
  • 5. An Innovative Extension: A Corpus-Linguistic Approach to Endings
  • 6. Endings in Postmodernist Literature
  • Bibliography
  • Corpus-Linguistic Exploration of Endings in Short Stories: Stella Neumann (Aachen)
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Theoretical Background
  • 2.1 Linguistic Approaches to Text Structure
  • 2.2 Computational Approaches to the Study of Literature
  • 3 The Corpus Approach
  • 3.1 The Endings Corpus
  • 3.2 Operationalisation of Indicators
  • 4 Patterns in the Endings Corpus: Some Preliminary Findings
  • 4.1 Exploring indicators of closure
  • 4.2 Towards the Identification of Patterns
  • 5 Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Defining Endings in Newspaper Writing—A Case Study on Football Coverage: Jennifer Fest (Aachen)
  • 1. Introduction: Getting Started with Endings
  • 2. The Structure of News
  • 3. Finding an Ending
  • 4. Endings in Sports News
  • 5. Coming to an End
  • Bibliography
  • Film Endings: Tobias Hock (Aachen)
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Narratological and Cognitive Approaches
  • 3. Richard Neupert’s Binary Model
  • 4. Medium-Specific Approaches
  • 5. Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • A History of Anthony in 3 ½ Endings: History, Memory, and Fabulation in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending: Julia Vaeßen and Sven Strasen (Aachen)
  • The Ambiguity of the Ending
  • Means to an End: Memory, Emplotment, Fabulation
  • “The Story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly, to ourselves.” Stories, Identities and Closure: A Frame-Theoretical Account
  • Conclusions, Hypotheses, Speculation
  • Bibliography
  • Unexpected Endings: Eucatastrophic Consolations in Literature and Theology: Trevor Hart (St Andrews)
  • 1. Happily Ever After—Odd Consolations
  • 2. Golgotha and Parnassus—Two Views from the Top
  • 3. The Harrowing of Hell and the End of Tragedy
  • 4. Two Conflicting Theological Perspectives
  • 5. Holy Saturday—between Tragedy and Eucatastrophe
  • Bibliography
  • An Anachronic Ending: Time and the Post-Messianic Imagination: Samuel V. Adams (St Andrews)
  • I. Anachrony
  • II. Messianic
  • III. A Post-Messianic Imagining
  • Bibliography
  • In the Shadow of the End: The Moral of Fairytales: Daniel Gabelman (St Andrews)
  • Part I: In My Beginning Is My End
  • Part II: In My End Is My Beginning
  • Bibliography
  • “Serious Laughter”: A Re-Assessment of Byron’s Terminal Irony: Gavin Hopps (St Andrews)
  • I Annihilating Humour
  • II Eschatological Indifference
  • III Eutrapelia
  • IV Apophasis
  • Bibliography
  • Ending in Peace: The Quest for Final Consolation in Longfellow’s Dante Sonnets: Timothy E. Bartel (St Andrews)
  • Appendix: Longfellow’s Dante Sonnets
  • Bibliography
  • The Ending Written into Things: Coming to Terms with the Inescapable Ephemerality of Art: Tanya Walker (St Andrews)
  • The Ending Written into Things?
  • Endings and Near Endings: Material Limitations
  • Endings: Expectations and Realities
  • Forestalled Endings: Cultural Stewardship
  • Thwarted Endings: Death and Immortality
  • Chosen Endings: Intentionally Ephemeral Art
  • Final Thoughts
  • Bibliography
  • Suspended Endings, Theodicean Spaces, and Annie Dillard’s Asyndetic Style: Lori Kanitz (St Andrews)
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Minding the Gap
  • III. “Holy Insecurity” and Asyndeton
  • IV. Tsimtsum and Theodicean Spaces
  • V. The Clay Man in Whom Universes Spin
  • VI. The Suspended Christ, a Suspended Ending
  • Bibliography
  • “No correct epiphany”: On the Politics of Endings in South African Writing 1948–2000: Geoffrey V. Davis (Aachen)
  • Bibliography
  • An Untimely Ending: Paying Tribute to Rüdiger Schreyer (1941–2013): Peter H. Marsden


Gavin Hopps, Trevor Hart, and Peter Wenzel

In “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott argues that “the diverse idioms of utterance which make up current human intercourse have some meeting-place and compose a manifold of some sort.” The image of this meeting place, he suggests, “is not an inquiry or an argument, but a conversation.” Here is how he describes that conversation:

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. […] Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. […] Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. […] Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another.1

The essays gathered together in the present collection are the result of precisely this sort of conversation.2

The focus of the conversation in which the following essays are engaged is “ends and endings”—in literature, theology, linguistics and film. In line with Oakeshott’s hospitable model, no attempt has been made on the part of the editors to restrict the broad range of topics, aims and methodologies that characterized the presentations of the individual contributors. Thus, the volume looks at different kinds of endings with respect to their form and function, their cultural, philosophical and theological significance, at macro- and micro-levels, in different genres, media and disciplinary contexts. ← 9 | 10 →

One of the advantages of this “conversational” approach—which Oakeshott refers to as “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure”3—is that it doesn’t restrict the diversity of idiom or focus and instead allows concerns to emerge organically and be explored without prescription but within a communally established context. More positively, it opens up connections beyond conventional disciplinary parameters and exposes the oftentimes rather insular perspectives to questioning from alternative points of view. As Oakeshott writes:

In conversation, “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another.4

During the conversation that produced these essays, certain common features pertaining to endings emerged as salient—such as a tendency towards memorable form, complex construction and hopeful or “promissory” content—though there were a number of recurring questions too—such as: When is an ending not an ending? In what sense might things carry on after or be brought about paradoxically by means of the end? Whilst these features are obviously not relevant to all endings (one could hardly describe the endings of Hardy’s tragic novels or the slow-motion entropy of Beckett’s prose as “hopeful”), they provide a useful way of drawing together some of the themes of the ensuing conversation for the purposes of introduction.


In literature, the eye-catching and memorable quality of endings is typically constituted by some strikingly foregrounded formal or structural traits that enhance their particular aesthetic appeal. This is what endings share with proverbs. In “All’s well that ends well,” it is the exclusive use of monosyllabics, the pleasant recurrence of the labials, and the resumption of the word “well” that produces this typical aesthetic effect, subtly suggesting that what is formally so skillfully constructed will express an established and important, if not universal, truth. Likewise, endings in literature tend to exhibit a memorable form that involves a combination of Gestalt principles such as contrast, symmetry and condensation, which may for example be made manifest in a final change from past to present tense, a surprising allusion to the work’s title, or else in a memorable punchline or flourish. ← 10 | 11 →

The memorable formal structure of most endings suggests that a considerable amount of creativity was involved in its construction. Endings—at least in the realm of literature—thus tend to be “artful” in the double sense of this word—not only cleverly thought out, but also artificial or potentially deceptive. In literature, but also in life more generally, there is a compelling need to structure time by defining beginnings, durations and terminations. Being artificially set up, however, such demarcations are a matter of convention or an expedient fiction. As Nadine Gordimer has remarked with reference to literature: “The continuity of existence has to be selectively interrupted by the sense of form which is art,” but “the forms of story-telling are arbitrary. There are alternative endings.”5 This insight into the contingency of temporal frameworks and their closure has—whether in postmodern literature, historiography or philosophy—advanced the popularity of such notions as “emplotment” and “fabulation,” which etymologically keep in view the idea that any kind of plot has been artfully conceived and that all fables will tell a “fabulous” tale.

Even so, fictions and fables may nonetheless point towards or dosclose “what is”; and there are stories whose representational validity is not dependent on a correspondence with present reality but rather a correlation with that which is to come (and whether we hold that, beyond the horizon, there is an “undiscovered country” or unsundered nothingness, we do so as a matter of faith). There are also stories whose purpose it is, by means of fiction, to widen our vision and entice us towards possibilities beyond the present. To refer back to our earlier example, one only has to think of Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well to find an example of a fairytale narrative that elicits a “suspension of disbelief,” which, though it differs from real assent, lures the audience into a dilated openness that is akin to faith. As the authors of a well-known handbook on Shakespeare have phrased it, the play requires its audience to approach its unfolding “with open-minded acceptance of even the most improbable developments, and with faith in the unexpected good in human nature.”6 It is this intertwining of improbability, the unexpected, faith in the good, and a receptive openness towards what is to come that brings into view another of the volume’s central concerns: namely, eschatology. Since for some readers this may be less familiar territory, a prefatory comment on the subject may be helpful. ← 11 | 12 →


It has sometimes been observed that the literary, dramatic and historical sensibilities of Western culture owe rather more to its Jewish and Christian theological heritage than the citizens of modernity have generally been inclined either to remember or admit. The idea of narration itself, of a series of events meaningfully related and moving identifiably via “time’s arrow” from putative beginning to an “end” (in both familiar senses of the word, temporal finale and final purpose) is wedded closely to Hebraic ways of constructing the world’s “story” from absolute incipience “in the beginning” to a promised but as yet longed for fulfillment, lying (in the unashamedly paradoxical terms which theological speech sometimes entails) “after” the end of time itself. Indeed, for Christian theology—as one of the Church’s greatest theologians, Augustine of Hippo, observed in the fourth century CE—time is in any case a function or contingency of the sort of world that God has created, rather than an absolute backdrop “within” which the world’s beginning and end take place. And, although “eschatology” is generally defined as that branch of doctrine concerned with “the last things” (Gk. “ta eschata”), it is more helpfully understood as including within its scope all things from beginning to end, the whole “story” insofar as every element of it is related to and “proleptically” bathed in the distinctive light of the promised end. So, for Christian theology, imagining the contours of what God has promised is bound to be transformative of the present moment, which is in fact never experienced as “pure present,” but always a compound reality shot through with expectation and glimpses of futurity. And theology, too, has to grapple with its own version of the question: “When is an ending not an ending?” For there is an irreversible momentum about the divine act of creation which, in one sense, will not be “ended” at all, but transfigured and established in a wholly new standing in relation to its Maker. Thus, paradoxically again, the “end” of the world’s history is characteristically figured in terms of its beginning, as a “new creation.” The meaning of the image resists easy analysis, but holds in suggestive tension at least the ideas of a radical and unprecedented new beginning on the one hand (the original creative act itself having been “ex nihilo”), and the regeneration and bringing to fulfilment of all that is good and valuable in creation itself on the other. In short, the world’s story both comes to a dramatic end and yet continues by virtue of a new beginning, generated in some sense from its own pattern and substance. In this, as in so many ways, as the reader can discover in the conversation that follows, the resonances between the imaginative categories with which theology necessarily works and those familiar to the student of literature are plentiful, surprising and reciprocally illuminating. It is hoped that they will also provoke “fresh exertions.” ← 12 | 13 →


Peter Wenzel’s interest in the opening contribution, “Endings in Literature: A Survey,” lies in the formal construction of endings and their cognitive backgrounds. Beginning with a glance at previous attempts to set up a typology of forms of closure, he distinguishes three cognitive principles on which the construction of endings in literary texts can be grounded: the structuring of time in terms of memorable events, the change of conceptual frames and the use of Gestalt principles or other reader-activating devices, which provide a rich repertoire of “signals of closure.” As Wenzel shows, many of these forms have frequently also been employed by postmodernist writers, since even a parody of traditional notions of closure may paradoxically be most effectively achieved by an obtrusive use of signals of closure.

In her article on “Corpus-linguistic Exploration of Endings in Short Stories,” Stella Neumann employs an innovative quantitative approach to textual closure, which manages to overcome one of the typical weaknesses of traditional, hermeneutic approaches (which identify various “types” of endings without being able to provide evidence of how representative they are). The chapter starts with a brief overview of earlier attempts to study and classify types of closure. Next, Neumann gives an outline of her own approach to the subject, which has been tested out on a corpus of 130 short stories by 13 writers, covering a wide range of literary output in an objective manner, i.e., without recourse to such problematic criteria as quality or reputation. The chapter concludes with a promising list of preliminary results. In sum, the most frequent patterns include: the use of closure-foreshadowing words, the repetition of the work’s title and final sentences that are short or introduced by “and.” Certain combinations of closural patterns are naturally privileged over others (the most popular is a combination of closural allusion and repetition of the title), and there seems to be a slight tendency in the older texts to draw more readily on closural patterns than the more recent ones.

While Neumann’s article focuses on the endings of short stories, the next two contributions extend the perspective of closural research by looking at endings in non-literary texts and other media. Jennifer Fest, in “Defining Endings in Newspaper Writing—A Case Study on Football Coverage,” proceeds from the hypothesis that while in traditionally structured news articles, due to their prioritization of facts, endings do not normally carry much weight, newspaper genres such as sports coverage, which aspire to a greater emotional appeal, display a much stronger tendency towards the use of closural patterns. Like Neumann, Fest substantiates her claims by means of a corpus linguistic approach. In a set of 352 articles on football from British tabloid newspapers, she traces a number ← 13 | 14 → of parallels to the structure of endings in literary texts. These parallels include a reader-activating use of quotations, “zooming out” techniques that lead the reader back to a broader range of information, and various kinds of repetition, not only of an exact formal nature, but also at a syntactic and semantic level. Moreover, Fest discovers some striking general parallels between the endings of newspaper articles and fictional texts, in particular with respect to the differences between demanding and popular manifestations of the genre and the personal styles of individual writers.

Fest’s compelling evidence of a common core of closural patterns in literary and non-literary texts is supplemented by Tobias Hock’s chapter on “Film Endings,” which shows that most of these patterns can also be traced in the genre of film. As Hock observes, this isn’t surprising, since film as a narrative medium bears strong structural resemblance to genres such as the novel and the short story, upon which the majority of closural theories have focused. After a critical discussion of the relevant models of closural patterns developed by earlier film experts, Hock sets up a typology of film endings, in which once again “zooming out” techniques and similarities between beginning and ending—both at the content-level and at the level of form—play a prominent role. In addition to these, Hock focuses attention on several film-specific closural techniques, such as leave-taking scenes, scenes in which something is closed or “wrapped up,” auditive and musical cues, changes of colour as well as the final fade-out to the credits. In an instructive conclusion, Hock offers some suggestions for further research in relation to the formal structure of film endings; in particular, he points towards the need to study both universal and genre-specific closural strategies, the indispensability of quantitative, corpus-based methods in this research, and the necessity of taking into account viewers’ experiences and expectations through what might be termed a “cognitive-probabilistic” approach.

It is a cognitive perspective, too, that characterizes the contribution by Julia Vaeßen and Sven Strasen: “History, Memory, and Fabulation in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending.” Here, however, the focus shifts from the formal typology to the constructedness of endings. Although this chapter is specifically concerned with Barnes’s novel, its main interest lies in the existential human need for endings and their interconnection with cognitive principles. As Vaeßen and Strasen contend, humans have a longing for demarcations that delimit the potentially endless time into which they are born. To structure the temporal units constituted by these demarcations, humanity constructs patterns of emplotment and fabulation, and in doing so activates cognitive frames that are suitable for imposing order and stability on the fluid and chaotic nature of memory and history. As Frank Kermode has observed: “Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest’ […] when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their ← 14 | 15 → span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and poems.”7 Kermode’s comments on the need for sense-making temporal delimitations and his further hypotheses about its reflection in narratives of the Apocalypse, the Return of the Promised Land or the Resurrection of the Body concur with the worldview of Barnes’s novel. However, the obtrusive closural signals of the story’s ending paradoxically undermine its stability and terminating effect. While for Vaeßen and Strasen, the need to make sense of life by the construction of endings is a neutral phenomenon, which literary scholarship can fruitfully describe with the help of frame theory and other cognitive principles, it is clearly far from value-free in the epistemology of Kermode and Barnes. For them, the construction of closure forms part of the search for sense in a largely arbitrary universe and is therefore inextricably linked to self-deception.

This sceptical or nihilistic stance—which sees the ultimate reality as a meaningless abyss and any intuitions of significance in it as an illusory imposition—is manifestly only one of many possible ways of interpreting endings in art and culture. This is made clear by the ensuing contributions to the volume, which discuss the significance of different sorts of endings with an openness to theological possibilities. The first of these essays is Trevor Hart’s chapter, “Unexpected Endings: Eucatastrophic Consolations in Literature and Theology,” which contests some of the underlying assumptions of the preceding chapter. More precisely, diverging from Iris Murdoch’s Nietzschean view that through literary and dramatic art humans grant form and meaning to an otherwise shapeless and meaningless existence, Hart calls into question the taken-for-granted association of fiction or fabulation with self-deception, and affirms to the contrary that whilst our ascription of meaning to this-worldly existence may indeed be a fictional imposition, it may still, paradoxically, vouchsafe intimations of and efficaciously orient us towards a reality “beyond the walls of the world.” Importantly, though, as Hart emphasizes, this eschatological perspective does not efface the brokenness, suffering and darkness of the world. To help explain this, Hart sets up an analogy between J.R.R. Tolkien’s notion of “eucatastrophe” and the Christian concepts of resurrection and salvation that emerge “improbably” after an earthly life largely predominated by sorrow and failure in a hostile and seemingly senseless world. The ultimate basis of this hope for a “eucatastrophic” end of human existence is the model of Christ’s own suffering, which after the experience of tragic disaster and god-forsakenness abruptly turned into unexpected salvation. ← 15 | 16 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Apocalypse endings in literature endings in journalism endings in films Ends Closure
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 234 pp., 6 b/w fig., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Gavin Hopps (Volume editor) Stella Neumann (Volume editor) Sven Strasen (Volume editor) Peter Wenzel (Volume editor)

Gavin Hopps is Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews (United Kingdom). His research concentrates on romantic literature and popular music. Stella Neumann is Professor of English Linguistics at RWTH Aachen (Germany). Her research interests include register variation, empirical methods and translation studies. Sven Strasen is Senior Lecturer at RWTH Aachen. His research focuses on reception theories and cognitive literary studies. Peter Wenzel is Professor of English Literature at RWTH Aachen and has published on literary theory.


Title: Last Things: Essays on Ends and Endings
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237 pages