I’m going to be quite frank about it and just say upfront that I am generally not a fan of epilogues. And even more frankly, or maybe Frank-N-Furterly, I hate happily ever afters.
I know that as an aspiring writer and adamant book-worm this is a little bit blasphemous – after all, who doesn’t love a tiny bit more closure, a last peak at the characters we have grown to love?
Me. It’s me. I don’t like it.
Now, I’ve known this for a few years. As a matter of fact, possibly since I finished my first Oh-My-God-When’s-The-Next-One book series many a year ago. It seems that the more I encounter them, the more tempted I am to just shut a book and pretend that the writer wrote no more after the end of the actual storyline – and I’m going to clarify what I mean by this later.
Now, bear with me, because I have a few examples, all from what I consider to be my some of my favorite books. Spoilers ahead.
Example 1: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
“The Flaw in the Plan” leaves us right after the Battle of Hogwarts; Harry is telling his two dearest friends that’s he’s about to sneak off to our favorite dormitory, and all he wants is a sandwich. We get the lovely line, “And quite honestly…I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.” Then we get the Epilogue: “Nineteen Years Later” and we get a “Where are they now?” sort of “Happily Ever After.”
Example 2: D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon Book Ten: The Soldiers of Halla.
Journal #37 has two chapters consecutively named “The End” which is significant because usually his chapters don’t have titles. Bobby is sitting, saying farewell to his reader, and is contemplating the fact that his entire existence is about to be erased. It ends with him saying the essential life philosophy of the entire series, Press’s famous saying, “This is the way it was meant to be.” (Although Bobby says it a bit differently here – syntax). Titled “Earth,” the pseudo-epilogue next chapter gives us a peek at the entire life that Bobby Pendragon would have led if he had not been a Traveler – the life he was deprived of and ultimately lost.
Example 3: Susanne Collins’s Mockingjay
I don’t have my copy on me any more (I will never lend books out ever again), but as I recall the book ended with Katniss and Peeta kind of deciding to venture into their happiness, and then the Epilogue shows them several years later with children. They are sitting in a field.
In all three examples I’ve given we end on a note that leaves me in tears. We finally made it – the reader with these characters has come to the end of years of anxiety, loss, frustration, and worry. There are no more mysteries because we’ve won, even though we lost so much. Harry has lost nearly every parental figure he has ever known, along with many of his loved ones, not to mention the years of emotional and mental frustration. Bobby is in the same state – all his Traveler buddies have disappeared to rejoin Halla, essentially no longer existing as the beings he knows. He fought this battle his whole teenagehood, only to be told that he doesn’t even get to live to reap the benefits of the new Halla as one of its members. Katniss is just starting to heal and we know that’s where she’s headed, but she isn’t there yet, and as far as we have always known, Katniss has never wanted children.
We hurt with these characters—their battles are ours and we feel their pain. We cried at 2 am when Hedwig was hit with the Killing Curse, we couldn’t comprehend Prim being blown to bits. We suffered every tragedy they did.
Then they get to heal, and we don’t with them. We’re just suddenly in this version where they’re fine, and have moved on, and we haven’t had the chance to. We didn’t get the moments to forgive what happened to them, because they did that hidden away from us, in a timeline that was only a page-turn for us but several unwritten books for them.
It’s jarring. It’s like going into a coma after a war, and waking up to find that the world has all moved on, except for you.
It’s optimistic, yes, but in a way it takes away from everything that they went through that we miss the years of turmoil and healing. We just get the healed, polished, shiny version of their future.
In the case of Bobby, we don’t even know this version of him. This is a Bobby that was never a Traveler. This is a Bobby who never swam in the oceans with Spader or kissed Loor in the rain or made sure Kasha’s body got back home. This is a Bobby that didn’t fight Saint Dane and play that dangerous game with that devilish fiend. This is the Bobby that kissed Courtney that first afternoon and went on and won the game and went to college and watched Mark’s kids grow. This is a Bobby that I literally don’t care about because I don’t know him. He’s not the Bobby that we followed across ten territories.
And in a way, the versions of all of these characters that we’re seeing in these epilogues—in these Happily Ever Afters—we don’t know anymore.
Yeah, that was the Harry we went to Hogwarts with nineteen years ago. He vanquished the Dark Lord. We cried with him. And then we don’t see him for years, and suddenly he has a family with kids we’re just learning the names of. Same with Katniss.
By giving these far off Happily Ever Afters, the author is depriving us of years of these characters’ lives. We went from spending so much time with them, to suddenly finding them on Facebook, never having kept in touch. It’s bizarre and jarring, and it’s like looking at strangers. These are not the characters we knew, because they’ve grown up. We didn’t get to heal with them, we didn’t see them struggle all those years to make the lives they have.
There’s no gratification in these scenes. That’s ultimately what it boils down to. In an attempt to give us closure, these writers are kind of doing the opposite. Because, regardless, we experienced together and we have to wonder “How?” How did they get past it?
I’m not saying that everyone feels this way. There are plenty of readers who thoroughly enjoy these sorts of endings. I’m also not saying that I know better than these best-selling authors. They did what was right for the story they needed to tell.
But boy, is it frustrating.
I think when it comes to endings, you have to know where you want it to end and where it needs to end, and there’s no real way of determining that. It really is up to the writer to decide what part of these characters’ story is the real end of their story. It’ll change for every writer, and every story they write. For instance, I really like Phillip Pullman’s “Lantern Slides,” which show us these tiny snippets and moments of healing without giving us a finite answer of how his characters from his His Dark Materials are doing now. As far as endings go, I prefer this sort of open-ended voyeurism as opposed to the finite “they lived happily ever after.” As a reader I feel deprived of the chance to heal with these characters, and in a way am being told that because they’ve healed, I’ll have to too and it sort of disregards our investments in them. I am against far-off happily ever afters, preferring instead the mundane moments after the conclusions where we don’t know where the characters will go next, and we just have to hope that they’ll heal with time, just like us. This is the end of the story, the actual story ,the one we needed an ending to. We don’t need an ending to their happiness and their lives. I don’t think knowing the jobs they land, or the names of their children, or the moment they die in any way adds to the stories we have spent so long wrapped up in. We went on these adventures with them, and at the end of it we should be allowed to part ways hoping for the best for them, and getting ready to move on.
But, perhaps for the writer, writing these epilogues is their way of healing with their characters. And, in a way, that’s a little more important because at the end, Harry is part of JK Rowling, Bobby is part of DJ MacHale, and Katniss is part of Susanne Collins.
And this is the way it was meant to be.