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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 40-52

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Hugo's le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné
The End as Contamination

Allan Stoekl

How does one end a story? What does it mean to end a story? What is the relationship between the end of a story and that which precedes it? These, in many ways, are among the central concerns of nineteenth-century fiction, for this period saw extensive experimentation not only in the areas of narration, point of view, and style, but in the realm of what is often called narrative "closure."

This term, one we are all familiar with from television news accounts—everyone wants closure nowadays, whatever that is—is already contested in much of nineteenth-century fiction. The happy certainties of, say, a Sherlock Holmes story are hardly corroborated by the dismal fates of Emma Bovary or Thérèse Raquin. Indeed, one of the goals of much "realism" of the period can be seen as a desire to formulate another type of ending, one that provides not happy consolation—closure in the contemporary sense of the term—but simply an ending as cessation, a hanging-fire that offers only the silence, and emptiness, of the tomb. And even the emptiness of the character: after all, when Charles Bovary is opened up in order to determine the cause of his death, the doctors "find nothing": he was as empty as the ending of his wife's story. Indeed the discovery of that emptiness is the end (such as it is). Charles's emptiness has opened the story, it closes it, and in between there are only episodes that make obvious the end to come: disillusionment in the power of stories, the death-in-life of a life that tries to ape adventures. The end, the end of stories in general, comes to occupy and reconfigure (in its own nonimage) the entire story.

As Montaigne put it, there is only a bout rather than a but: an end as mere cessation rather than as goal or conclusion.1 This endlessness of the end—as simple extinction—suffuses all that comes before it: it is not so much that events lead up to an end, but rather that the end casts back on the events that precede it its own void, its fundamental unknowability.

Sartre, of course, was eager to continue this Flaubertian critique (as he continued so much else started by Flaubert); in La nausée (Nausea) his hero, Roquentin, refuses any belief in the reality of "adventures"—his own or anyone else's—because they are essentially false: they are stories, with beginnings and endings selected to provide an illuminating or pleasurable experience. They are no more "real" than are the objects [End Page 40] around us, which are fabricated and chosen with a subjective, and selfish, end in view. In lived adventures, as in stories in novels or films, it is the end that gives sense to what comes before it: the economy of narrative, so to speak, requires that everything that figures in a story be of use in contributing to a satisfying and totalizing end (a but). In his diary, Roquentin writes:

And in reality you have started at the end. It was there, invisible and present, it is the one which gives to words the pomp and value of a beginning. "I was out walking, I had left the town without realizing it, I was thinking about my money troubles." This sentence, taken simply for what it is, means that the man was absorbed, morose, a hundred leagues from an adventure, exactly in the mood to let things happen without noticing them. But the end is there, transforming everything. For us, the man is already the hero of the story. [. . .] And the story goes on in reverse: instants have stopped piling themselves up in a lighthearted way one on top of the other, they are snapped up by the end of the story which draws them and each one of them in turn, draws out the preceding instant: "It was night, the street...