- Rebecca Harding Davis and the Troubled Conclusion
Over the past fifty years, there has been a small but steady debate over the nature and format of narrative endings, with Helen Waite Papashvily’s All the Happy Endings (1956), Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967), D. A. Miller’s Narrative and Its Discontents (1981), and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Writing Beyond the Ending (1985) serving as the major contributors. Though not necessarily a hotbed of critical interest, conclusions often receive a disproportionate amount of emphasis as stand-alone representatives of the quality and integrity of texts. John Kucich argues that “in some cases the ending is the most important part of the novel; the entire work can seem only a backdrop to the conclusion, on which our judgment of the work hinges.”1 Such a tendency to hold up narrative endings as evidence of literary worth and authorial skill has had negative consequences for writers trying to push their texts beyond conventional expectations, and this backlash has been particularly true in the case of Rebecca Harding Davis. In the majority of her short stories, novellas, and novels, though the body of the text might argue for a woman’s right to pursue her dreams outside the domestic space, in the end her heroines repeatedly sacrifice themselves for the sake of husbands, children, and home life. However, I will argue that Davis fully intends these endings to disappoint her readers. Transitioning from the more structured conventions of sentimentalism into the uncertainty of realism, Davis utilizes a narrative technique I call “troubled conclusions” to functionally end the texts while still allowing the narrative tensions to remain unresolved. This lack of resolution leaves the reader unsure as to whether Davis is upholding or denouncing conventional domesticity. Instead of neatly tying up the texts, she forces readers to [End Page 251] question her endings and to continue considering the complicated issues that she fails to resolve, subtly suggesting that these issues are perhaps irresolvable. Rather than capitulations, Davis’ conclusions are innovations and she uses her troubled endings as a narrative technique to challenge literary expectations.
When discussing conclusions, it is important to remember that “conclusion” and “closure” are not necessarily synonymous terms. One can reach the last page of the text without actually finishing the narrative, as ending the narrative sequence and bringing closure to the narrative story are two separate and not necessarily related acts. Marianna Torgovnick offers a helpful explanation of the distinction between an “ending” and “closure” in Closure in the Novel, explaining, “The word ‘ending’ straightforwardly designates the last definable unit of work—section, scene, chapter, page, paragraph, sentence—whichever seems most appropriate for a given text.”2 She then contrasts this understanding of “ending” with her definition of “closure,” which she conceives of as a process (rather than an object) that requires an examination and appreciation of the entire text. As she suggests, “‘closure’ designates the process by which a novel reaches an adequate, appropriate conclusion. […]To study closure and the shape of fictions, we begin with the ending, but evaluate its success as part of an artistic whole, as the final element in a particular structure of words and meanings.”3 From Torgovnick’s perspective, to study closure is not just a question of whether the novel satisfactorily (or unsatisfactorily) comes to an end, but how the end reflects or contradicts the entire direction of the text. In its simplest form, if the text’s ending wraps up the narrative threads, the text has closure. But if a text ends while still leaving the narrative questions and tensions unresolved, the text lacks closure. Thus, though Davis’ texts end and all the right heroines marry all the right heroes, in so doing the conclusion seems to contradict the “artistic whole” which has been more realistic than romantic and her conclusions (both narrative and ideological) seem far more troubled than conclusive.
Although Davis may be unique in her use of troubled conclusions as a narrative technique, she is not unique in finding conclusions to be a moment of narrative tension and complexity. DuPlessis argues that most nineteenth-century women writers struggle with conclusions as their dueling plotlines...