In the first semester of my AP Language class, I was confused and exasperated by the number of seemingly useless and poorly written books we had to read. I complained about our class focusing on avant-garde novels instead of the "classics" established to be the model of good literature. Thus, when we were allowed to read a banned or challenged book of our choosing, I happily picked John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" thinking it'd be a good work of fiction I'd enjoy as much as Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" I had read the previous year.
However, as I stumbled through the 455 page novel, I felt like the story became exhaustive. And as I finally reached the conclusion, I was shocked and later on, disappointed. The book had ended abruptly without tying any loose ends or explaining what happened to major characters like Tom Joad. It left the story just as open-ended as it had been when it started. I was annoyed that I had spent so long reading countless pages just for it to end without rewarding me with a structured plot, a climax, a riveting last impression and a fulfilling finality.
And to my further discontent, the openness, ambiguity and heavy symbolism in the conclusion forced me to sit there for hours after I had finished the book contemplating and thinking about what it meant.
I noticed a similar pattern as I began to read "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin. The plot itself was mediocre and somewhat dull to me and the conclusion was one so unexpected, outlandish and random that it was almost comical despite its tragic nature. Again, it was extremely symbolic filled with nuance and uncertainty in addition to never dictating what happened to any of the other characters. After I closed the book, I sat there for an hour or so thinking about what it could mean just like I did with "The Grapes of Wrath."
Both of these works underwhelmed me with their plot and astonished me with the vagueness of their conclusion. And as I began to notice this trend of inconclusive endings over the course of my AP Language class, I then decided to think for another hour about the source of my dissatisfaction. I read literary analyses of these two works, looked them up on Sparknotes and read the prefaces to both novels to try and gain some sense of understanding. And though the prefaces could at times, be pretty boring, they helped me see the literary merit and worth behind both of these novels.
I began to realize that I disliked both for their unfulfilling or unenjoyable quality. However, the reason why I found them unfulfilling or unenjoyable wasn't necessarily because of bad writing but because I hadn't been introduced to many novels that didn't have a traditional story arc. All throughout middle school and early high school, I was taught that all fiction had certain elements such as an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc. And since the books we read contained everything in that list, I had come to expect good literature to be that way as well.
I wasn't used to authors manipulating those standards or omitting them at all. As a freshman, I believed the main purpose of literature was to express a theme or message through the plot which would usually become evident at the conclusion. For me, the conclusion was the most important part of the novel where the plot was tied up and united with a bigger picture that finalized the impact the work had on the reader.
However, I now see that literature can extend far beyond that definition. Challenging literary standards can leave a bigger impact on the reader by undermining their expectations. An inconclusive ending filled with nuance encourages the reader to find their own meaning within the book without explicitly telling them so. And great works such as 'The Awakening' and 'The Grapes of Wrath' do it masterfully, leaving a scene that is shockingly inconclusive yet powerfully charged with emotion and symbolism that still allow for a central message to be expressed.
These kinds of conclusions don't finalize the book or "wrap it up." They allow for the book to continue living as a continuous discussion. And more importantly, they don't use plot or a final scene to express their message but rather the entire novel itself. The ambiguous endings in both novels weren't meant to make a final impression on the reader. They were intentionally unsatisfying to make readers look back or consider the novel as a whole.
Thus, the reason why the plot was so unenjoyable to me was because Kate Chopin and John Steinbeck didn't intend to write a story but offer commentary on the world around them and convey the zeitgeist, culture and attitudes of their time. Though the plot was a tool they used to move audiences and make it more relatable, it was never supposed to be the main focus of the story. Likewise, the conclusions of both never defined the novels. Instead, it made both works more fluid or ongoing. The conclusions were a conduit for a larger message and world detailed throughout the books.
I still sometimes struggle with appreciating these kinds of works. It's hard to draw a distinction between a hastily written ending that's given up on the story and one that's been carefully planned to surprise readers. In addition, the fact that these works don't focus on plot make it more mundane to read and analyze until the ending when one can consider the message of the work as a whole.
However, the books I've been reading so far in my AP Language class have definitely challenged and pushed me to understand these more difficult, symbolic and unorthodox texts. Many of these are considered great because they challenged the status quo. Thus, in my eyes, they're now remarkable for expanding my views and helping me break free from the shackles of literary convention and structure.