12 Worst Book Endings

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I saw a terrific list of the 12 worst book endings (below) and couldn’t resist sharing it with you. After you’ve read this article, let’s talk.

Literature’s Very Worst Endings

Endings are very, very hard. Pressure, didacticism, human frailty — the greater question is less why books disappoint than why any succeed. Each of these is a good book written by someone of great skill who, for whatever reason, choked, rushed, or otherwise ran a narrative off a cliff. Like all such things, the list is completely arbitrary and personal. Oh, and, spoiler alert, I guess.

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn By Mark Twain. Some wish to believe that Mr. Twain knew exactly what he was doing – that after hundreds of pages of deliberate moral ambiguity, he made the subversive decision not to end with Huck’s awakening to escaped slave Jim’s humanity. Hemingway recommended readers just skip the final chapters.
  • A Farewell to Arms By Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was one to talk. The neat death of nurse Catherine Barkley in childbirth is a thoroughly crummy copout and a prime example of Female Character Sacrifice.
  • Gone Girl By Gillian Flynn. Gillian Flynn created a complex, genuinely interesting heroine. And then proceeded to turn her into an untrammeled — yet one-dimensional! — psychopath.
  • Little Women By Louisa May Alcott. As disappointing an ending as exists in literature. Alcott didn’t want her independent Jo to marry fan-favorite Laurie: Fine. Author’s prerogative. the endBut in marrying Jo off to the priggish (and famously unsexy) Professor Bhaer, she broke the hearts of generations of readers.
  • The Return of the Native By Thomas Hardy. Like several Hardy heroines, the rebellious Eustacia Vye is sacrificed for sexual transgressions; her suicide punishes a fallen woman a little too neatly. And the epilogue just adds insult to injury. (They often do.)
  • Our Mutual Friend By Charles Dickens. Dickens’s last completed novel is one of his most fun. Until, that is, he lays on a triple-whammy of cheat-y twists: the old “miser was testing his heirs all along” saw, and not one but two lost wills coming to light. It’s Dickens, so he gets away with it, but really it’s a bit much.
  • The Pursuit of Love By Nancy Mitford. Mitford’s best and funniest book contains, for my money, her worst ending—the novel changes tone at the end and degenerates into what feels like total, wistful wish-fulfillment. (Also, people are unnecessarily killed off.)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows By J.K. Rowling. If books are difficult to end well, series are near-impossible, and Rowling gets high sangfroid marks for wrapping up Harry Potter in a timely and competent – if uninspired — fashion. (Mockingjay presents the unhappy alternative.) But it can’t be denied that the last volume of the saga is the least inventive. Add to that a dreary epilogue that gives us dull, grown-up versions of the beloved characters and it’s no wonder fans are clamoring for prequels.
  • London Fields By Martin Amis. Does Amis have us right where we wants us, clothing his acid, linguistically ingenious postmodern noir in the lurid trappings of ironic genre narrative? Or does the deterministic conceit ultimately result in exactly the languor he’s been exploiting for 200 pages?
  • The Broom of the System By David Foster Wallace. I know, this is kind of cheap. DFW’s honors thesis turned debut is not conventional fiction. But that showy last line (“I’m a man of my”) feels unworthy.
  • The Song of the Lark By Willa Cather. A tip-off that this ending isn’t up to snuff may be found in the section title: “Kronborg: Ten Years Later.”
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland By Lewis Carroll. It was all a dream. Enough said.

I found the list in a fabulous article as a sidebar on whether story makes us read (not to mention a second fascinating sidebar on the history of plot). Check it all out here.

Let’s Talk

Which listings made you respond, My thoughts exactly?
Which listings did you disagree with?
What books would you add?
What does this list teach you about bad endings?

I’ll share two of my opinions here but will save the others for responding to your comments:

  • I disagree about Gone Girl making the list.
  • I want to add Peace Like a River.

Your turn!

Check out this list of the 12 worst book endings. Click to tweet.

The 12 worst book endings. Do you agree? Click to tweet.

57 Responses

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  1. #1 on the list: Huck Finn. I read it as a child. I read it to my children. Reading the title here on this list, I can’t remember how it ends. No idea. Like I never finished the book (but I know I did, at least twice). I recall the gist of the plot, specific characters and scenes, but not the last chapter. Thus proving Hemingway’s point, I suppose.

  2. What an interesting post to start the week, Janet!
    * I disagree on Huck Finn; Twain kept him consistent in character, rather than engaging in revisionist wish-fulfillment.
    * The ‘years later epilogue’ is awfully tempting, and admit to having used it in ‘Emerald Isle’, mainly as a setup to the sequel. I think it worked for me because it still looks ahead to the characters’ futures. But when it’s a kind of twilight reflection, it’s usually awful. Like going to a 30th class reunion; I’m still eighteen and fit, and how did all these people get so OLD?
    * An ending I didn’t like was, surprisingly, in one of my favourite books, Nevil Shute’s ‘Pastoral’. The story runs its course to a solid and satisfying ending, and then the omniscient narrator is revealed as a kind of character, having observed the play. It’s jarring, but I suspect that in a wartime novel (1944) Shute felt he needed a ‘and the war goes on’ element.
    * The ending of Nathaniel West’s ‘Day Of The Locust’, with the artsy protagonist getting caught up in a riot (for a movie premiere? REALLY?) and mentally revising his ‘important’ masterpiece of painting is hokey beyond belief, but it may be a fitting end to a book that begins with pretensions and ends up tendentious. It remains the only book I have ever thrown through a closed window on completion.

  3. Totally agree about Little Women. I still remember my reaction when I first found out the ending! Then when I learned Alcott deliberately decided never to match the two favorite characters, it taught me the danger of being too controlling as a writer.

    • I never thought of that danger, Meagan, of being too controlling. Thanks for pointing it out. I’m going to Post-It to my laptop.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I recall one of my clients had a long-running romance series. She toyed with the readers and dangled various love interests in front of them. She and I, in a moment of delusional brainstorming, decided not to go with the obvious choice, the guy the readers would be rooting for.
      Fortunately one of her friends said to her, “If you’re thinking of having anyone but [insert name of favorite guy] marry the heroine, forget it. Your fans will hate you forever.”
      We gulped, realized we were dancing on a precipice, and slunk away from the cliff. We gave the readers whom they wanted.

  4. Can I throw in a couple more examples?
    * Fredrick Forsyth’s ‘The Dogs Of War’ is an engaging (though stylized) read, but the ending, whereby the mercenary leader ;Cat’ Shannon, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, walks off into the bush to take his own life, whistling ‘Spanish Harlem’…is idiotic. Shannon’s character is well-developed though several hundred pages, with a distinct moral code in an amoral setting…and while he might choose to kill himself, he sure wouldn’t be whistling a bouncy tune on the way to do the job.
    * Max Catto’s “Murphy’s War”, about a British sailor who takes it unto himself to hunt down the U-boat that sank his ship and butchered his crew at the mouth of the Orinoco in the dying days of WW2, has a very 60s ending…which was, interestingly, corrected in the film version. In the book, the British sailor and the U-boat captain are somehow thrown together in the maelstrom of the final battle, and see in one another the possibility of rapprochement. The film’s ending is an existential read on the wages of vengeance. It’s much more powerful, and doesn’t ‘date’ the work to a certain cultural ethos.
    * In the ‘lessons learned’ column goes this: a reader has made an investment of time in reading a book, and the author is obligated to provide a return on that investment, in terms of giving the reader a satisfying ending. Writing isn’t about exorcising my personal demons or airing my causes. It’s about the fact that someone I’ll never meet has trusted me with time, some money, and a piece of his or her heart.

  5. Hey, how about some responsible SPOILER ALERTS? If someone hasn’t read Gone Girl yet, it’s like whispering to someone at the beginning of the movie, “He’s really dead” or “The chick is really a guy.”

    And BTW, *SPOILER ALERT*

    Gone Girl ends precisely as it must. It’s a horror story.

    I’ll add to the list that the well-known pantser Mr. King, who sometimes gets backed into a corner, viz., The Stand and It.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Well, the writer did mention her thoughts would spoil the endings for the novels, but apparently, in her opinion, knowing these bad endings could hardly be considered a negative since she wrote, “Oh, and spoiler alert, I guess.”
      I agree with you that Gone Girl ended just right. Just desserts and all that.

    • Susan Sage says:

      I simply didn’t read the comments about the books I haven’t read in this list. But, you’re right. Spoiler alerts are always appreciated.

  6. Given that I’ve read just two on the list, and heard of four, I’m pretty surprised to see a Hemingway here. Like, “Hemingway?”
    So far in my reading life, I haven’t met any novel that I’d wish to add. Well, except, Allegiant in the Divergent trilogy.
    Eyes closed as I type this, but I don’t even think Allegiant should have been written. What do I know?

  7. I completely agree about Little Women. I was so disappointed Jo didn’t end up with Laurie. Sigh.
    *I’m gonna flip the question just a bit. What are your favorite kinds of endings, Janet?

    • Don’t know about Janet, Jeanne, but my favourite kind of ending is one in which the is a clear view ahead for both characters and storyline…but one that leaves the current vignette shined to a final, lustrous polish.
      * Nevil Shute’s “In The Wet” is a good example. It’s about a circuit-riding outback preacher who sits through the night with a dying bushman, and listens to the chap’s opium-clouded reminiscence on his life. The story doesn’t square with anything the preacher knows about the man, who eventually dies…but at the end he begins to find clues that what seemed like a narrative of past events is actually…and no, I won’t spoil it.

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      I like that movie versions have upped the appeal of Professor Bhaer. Gabriel Byrne TOTALLY works for me.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, I don’t know that there’s a type of ending that I enjoy so much as looking for an ending that is a good fit for where the story takes me. I don’t want it to be a “cheat” in which the author took an easy and obvious path to bring resolution. Nor do I like endings I can predict in the first chapter of the book. The story should take me to unexpected places, and those places meander to an ending I wouldn’t have guessed but, in light of the novel’s events, makes complete sense.
      That certainly was true for Gone Girl. Never would have guessed where that story would go.

  8. Jackie Layton says:

    I agree with A Farewell to Arms. The story haunted me the first time I read it. I wrote papers on it in high school and college and never came to peace with the ending.

    I love a good ending. If I’ve invested time and emotion reading a story, I want a solid finish. I know they won’t all be happily ever after, but it should make sense.

    Thanks for sharing this list, Janet!

  9. How fun, Janet! Right on, about Little Women. Yes. I’d never really considered why the ending hurt my heart. But yes. Amy got to tour England and Batman (I mean, the guy). Harry Potter … my girls love the Harry Potter ending … and I was okay with it. How else could it end? Harry Potter should never be on a list that says “worst.” No. But my girls and I agree that Harry and Hermione would have been sweet. I love their dance. And I can’t believe I allowed myself to watch Gone Girl … I stopped watching horror films a long time ago, and I didn’t read the book. It was sick and the whole thing was disturbing, but for a horror, genius. It’s been a while since I watched it, but I know someone who would do something like that. Truly. So I kept thinking that it was a possibility … unbelievable. There are really people in this world like that. Ugh. Alice in Wonderland is perfect the way it is … I love Alice. But yes, I don’t like disturbing endings. I love satisfying ones.

    • I’ve only read two Potter books so far (but watched all the films) and it seemed to me that their was much better chemistry between Hermonie and Harry. Watching the films I just thought it was bad casting, but from what I’ve read so far (books 1 and 6) casting was good.
      I didn’t like Catching Fire ending. The bad ending was unsatisfactory, but fits the universe it’s written in, but the tie-up blast through the years that followed felt rushed and unnecessary
      Mazerunner was disappointing that by half way through the second book it had deteriorated into just another zombie story.
      Lord of the Rings was a good way to deal with the ‘after the event’ life of beloved characters

      • Janet Grant says:

        Nicholas, I think you’re right that Hermonie and Harry had great chemistry. For them not to end up together was disappointing. I got over it, but I still recall thinking, “Really? This isn’t right.”

  10. I have a WIP ending that’s really awful, but so bad that it needs to remain.
    * It’s at the end of the first book in a diptych, about an American nuclear physicist who decides to offer his expertise to the bad guys for personal reasons and a desire for revenge. The first book has the tentative title ‘Descent’, and the second is ‘Ascent’.
    * At the end of the first book we find him hard at work, singing softly to himself (tune is Sammy Davis Jr.’s ‘Candyman’). And it goes like this:
    “Who can make a mush-room
    cloud up in the sky?
    Who can now achieve
    what they tied and failed to buy?
    The Taliban can!
    Oh, the Taliban can!
    Yeah, the Taliban can,
    Well, they had a little help,
    Oh, baby DARN I’m good!”
    * Obviously, a word stronger than ‘darn’ is used in the last line, but I didn’t want to offend.

  11. David Todd says:

    I’ve read only three of the books on the list. I read Huck Finn much too long ago to remember the ending. I liked the ending of Little Women. I consider it good to have a twist like Alcott gave us. And I thought the ending of Deathly Hallows was just fine.
    .
    As for adding any, I was a little disappointed with the ending of The Grapes of Wrath; although, my second or third read of it it seemed better.
    .
    The title of Stein’s post “Literature’s Worst Endings” perhaps speaks volumes. Is she thinking about “literary” novels. I guess she doesn’t consider genre books worth analyzing? And, she really ought to say this is a fiction list. I’ve read quite a few non-fiction works that end horribly, with the writer not having made the case for whatever message/cause they are trying to make.

    • Janet Grant says:

      David, I couldn’t tell what criterion she used to make her selections. Most are classics, but then she tosses in currently popular books. I’m not prepared to put most of the contemporary stories into the category of classic.

  12. Sarah Thomas says:

    Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Such an epic book with such an awful ending. I’m still mad about it.

    This is why I promise my readers happy endings. I refuse to kill anyone off at the end of a book in the name of art.

    The beginning is a different matter 😉

  13. Rick Barry says:

    I’m casting a vote for Robinson Crusoe. [Spoiler Alert: Robinson gets rescued!] If you haven’t read it, just close the book after the rescue. The ending where he sails back to Europe, comes into money, etc., etc. feels tacked on and unnecessary. The island is where the true story is.

  14. Oh, yes, Janet. Peace Like a River. I loved that book … until the ending. Agh! I felt betrayed and had to keep reminding myself it was literary fiction and thereby had the right to be depressing. However, I still hold dear a familiar quote: “We and the world, my children, will always be at war.
    “Retreat is impossible. Arm yourselves.” –Leif Enger

    • Janet Grant says:

      I found the father’s transition into eternity profoundly moving. To me, that was the ending of the book. But it went on and on after that. I couldn’t figure out if Enger didn’t know how to end the book, or if he was adding more content to meet a word count, or if he felt he had to tie all the other pieces of the story into neat stacks. That was such a shame since the rest of the book was magnificent.

  15. Jared says:

    Worst series ending: A Song of Ice and Fire.
    *
    *
    *
    *
    That’s a joke that people reading the books will understand. It has no ending as of yet, and probably never will.
    *One of the most disappointing endings I’ve read was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. For me, it was totally out of tune with the rest of the novel. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but it was very much a let down to the dramatic tension that had built all book long.

  16. I can’t agree about Deathly Hallows. IMO, that and Prisoner of Azkaban are the best of the series. I hated the ending of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Although it wasn’t at all unexpected it was jarring. Not the author’s fault. I was just hoping for some little bit of . . . hope?

  17. Beth MacKinney says:

    I’d add the final book in the Divergent series. Who wants a favorite heroine to be killed off in the end? (My daughter’s comments.)

  18. Lara Hosselton says:

    I HATED the ending to Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water. Peeved for my time being wasted would be an understatement.
    *I also learned to ignore a majority of Oprah’s book selections.

  19. Agreed with all! 🙂

  20. Laura Moe says:

    Thank you for mentioning Gone Girl. the ending of that book ruined the entire novel for me.

  21. Wendy Lawton says:

    Worst Ending EVER: The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Wendy, thanks for the reminder. I started reading it and loved the writing, but you were reading ahead of me. When I heard your response and how the book ends, I abandoned it like I would if I found myself handling a rattler. So don’t want to go there. I’m amazed at how eager people seemed to be to have their hearts broken.

  22. Ashley Bacon says:

    Agree 100% on Little Women. What a terrific let down.

  23. Matt says:

    I liked the Potter epilogue. I thought it was fitting that after all that adventure, they’d go on to living normal, boring adult lives. My favorite part is the bit of guilt that rides adult Draco.

    They can’t go on having adventures forever, and believe it was a sobering ending.

  24. To this list I would add George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the novella Legends of the Fall (from which the movie was made). Though I have not read Poisonwood Bible, many of my friends have complained about how it ended as well.

  25. Helen says:

    I remember reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman and feeling outraged at the end. The author actually presented two endings and let readers choose! Now that’s a copout if ever I saw one!

  26. Don Colgan says:

    I can’t comment on this list per se because I have not managed to finish reading those books on it that I have started. Such lists however might include “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. I searched this topic because this truly important book highlighted to me my preference for an indeterminate ending to be clearly equivocal. “The Magic Mountain”, for instance, ends well in this regard. “The Heart of Midlothian” is also often considered to end poorly, but there is an ambiguity in the fate of Effie’s son that allows possibilities.