ENDING WELL: Comments on Endings in O. Henry and William Faulkner
In one sense or another, all great stories have surprise endings. The ancient tale of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32), for example, contains an ending with an unexpected twist. Who would have thought that the father would be so extravagant in his love for his son who had gone against everything the family stood for? And who would have thought the older son would remain so hateful? Also, consider The Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). Even that title is a shocker because the people in the audience would have thought of that as an oxymoron; could there be any such thing as a GOOD Samaritan?
Further, most of the old beast fables gain their interest from endings that bring us up short. A case in point is the Aesop fable “The Dog and the Wolf” (http://www.aesopfables.com) in which the wolf behaves unexpectedly at the end of the story. Even though he is famished and there is a bowl of food in front of him, goes away hungry rather than risking captivity. That same old late twist is demonstrated in more modern stories.
Of course, O. Henry is famous for surprise endings as in “The Furnished Room” (Kelly 115-164), a tale about a man seeking his lover in an old dilapidated rooming house in New York. Even though the reader is not in on it until the end, he finds the room in which his beloved took her own life and coincidentally takes his own life in the same location. Such surprise endings are common in the writings of O. Henry who, to many critics, seems little more than a literary trickster. Incidentally, just to place O. Henry in history, he died in 1910, the same year of Mark Twain’s death.
But, we don’t expect manipulation to achieve a surprise ending in the writings of Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, who was 13 when O. Henry and Mark Twain died. We don’t expect surprise endings, but we often get them. In his famous short story “A Rose for Emily” (Kelly 155-164), for example, we don’t learn the awful truth about Emily Grierson until the very last sentence when the doctor holds up something he finds on the pillow beside a skeleton: a long strand of iron gray hair. At that moment, the chilling Gothicism of the entire story is borne in upon us as we realize this surprise ending is deeply organic and not manipulative at all.
Most writers may not even be aware that they are setting up a surprise but they do so unconsciously. So, the bottom line is this: if you are not surprised at the end of a piece of writing, a movie, a play, a song or a dance, you are probably not artistically satisfied.
We learn from Gerald Langford’s well-known biography of O. Henry that when William Sidney Porter, pseudonym O. Henry, was a teenager in Greenville, N.C., he tended to be a somewhat cruel practical joker. How he developed this inclination is a mystery, though we do know that his aunt home-schooled him and encouraged his satirical cartoons and caricatures as well as his sometimes quite poignant writings. Further, he had little patience with people’s vices and foibles.
Some of the practical jokes got out of hand as reported in Langford’s biography. Apparently Porter’s father was an alcoholic physician who, because of his drinking, had to quit his practice. Since he was not doctoring, he took up a project in the shed behind the house, intending to create perpetual motion with a water-driven apparatus. The ruined doctor apparently thought he could actually create a self-powering “machine.” Knowing otherwise, young Porter would regularly sneak into the shed and subtly skew the project, secretly laughing with glee when his frustrated father discovered the flaw. Thus he contributed to keeping the old man busy.
Langford recounts that another of his jokes had a remedial intention. One of the employees at the pharmacy where he worked—he became a licensed pharmacist at 19--had created a long tube or “straw” that he secretly sank into the whiskey cask in the cellar of the drug store. (Apparently, that store often prescribed whiskey for toddies). Porter hid in the basement and observed the employee sampling the “medicine” through the tube repeatedly and with gusto. So, when that employee was out delivering some meds, Porter brought in a batch very hot pepper flakes and laced the interior of the straw with them. The next time the employee went to the basement, he came bursting back up through the store and ran out front to the watering trough, into which he plunged open-mouthed. Langford reports that Porter joined him at the trough and got a confession out of him while he and the other pharmacy personnel howled with laughter.
So, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that O. Henry’s first published story, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” (http://www.literaturecollection.com) contains a turn of events that could be classified as a joke played on some criminals. Dick, the hobo who was a great whistler, picks up a new stocking that has fallen off a high class buggy. He follows the buggy full of rich people and goes behind the great plantation where it stops. There he encounters crooks that let him in on their plans to start a fire in the field and when all the menfolk are dealing with the fire, steal all the valuables from the house. Dick, an honest hobo, wants no part of it so he writes a warning note revealing the plot, inserts it into the stocking with a big rock. He throws the missile through a window, thereby thwarting the sinister plot and saving the plantation.
One could assert that all his stories, like “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” are, in a sense, practical jokes on the reader. Isn’t that what a surprise ending is—an unexpected twist that tricks you away from your expectations?
As Langford asserts, O. Henry never was free from the fear that someone might find out about his three-year term of imprisonment for embezzlement. In fact, that is one reason he changed his name to O. Henry when he began to gain national attention as a clever writer, whose surprise endings were his stock in trade. Towards the end of his life, he confessed to one of his close associates that he was tired of what he called the trick of unexpected conclusions to his stories. He said he wanted to write without the device, but he didn’t live to try it.
I think he came by the trick honestly, since his life was so unpredictable and adventurous. As Langford reports, born in Greenville, N.C. to an ailing mother and an alcoholic father, he was raised and home schooled by an aunt, who taught him the value of a good vocabulary and encouraged his early efforts at story writing and drawing. Because his father’s medical practice was waning, Will Porter studied on the job and, as mentioned earlier, became a licensed pharmacist at the age of 19. He didn’t care for that line of work, though, and spent a lot of time caricaturing customers both in drawing and writing.
At about the time he became a pharmacist in North Carolina, Langford goes on, he had the opportunity to join some family members on a huge ranch in west Texas and he lived a rugged life out there for several years, learning about roping, herding, riding, shooting, gambling and other cowboy activities. There was not much to read on the ranch, so he devoured whatever he could find, including a Webster’s dictionary. Later in life, he astounded friends by their inability to stump him on the definition and spelling of any word they found in the dictionary. And, those who have read a few of O. Henry’s stories know that he was not afraid to use unusual words in his writing.
The biographies assert that after marrying a beautiful woman in Austin, Texas, he got a job at the First National Bank of Austin, where books were reportedly kept in a haphazard way. From what I have read about the accusation of embezzlement, it seems to me that his crime was being in a job for which he was so ill suited. At any rate, money came up missing; he was accused; he left the country. He spent a little while in Honduras working and observing life and learning Spanish before he returned to face the music. He was sent to prison in Columbus, Ohio. for three years, where he served as assistant to the prison pharmacist.
While in prison, Langford says he sent stories to magazines under the name O. Henry and began to gain popularity and money. He sent all he made to help support and educate his daughter, who lost her mother to consumption. Upon release from prison, O. Henry went to New York City and established a very lucrative writing career. His own death was a kind of surprise ending. The funeral was held in a church where a wedding was to take place the same hour. The minister rushed through the service and those who attended could hear the celebrative wedding party in progress.
William Faulkner was a much more complex and less formulaic writer than O. Henry. His culminating work, Go Down, Moses, which Random House brought out in 1939, contains the long version of his short story masterpiece, “The Bear.” At the end of that story, Faulkner accomplishes a surprise on a deep and complicated level.
Ike, the central focus of “The Bear,” (Faulkner 191-331) was looking for truth with a small “t” as he reviewed the ledger books of his forbears. But he was looking for Truth with a large “T” in the wilderness dominated by the bear, Old Ben. What he found in the ledger books, the maze of corruption in his grandfather’s life, he rejected in a life-changing repudiation. What he found in the wilderness, honor, pride, pity, justice and courage, he accepted with a life-changing love. Ike’s relinquishment to the wilderness balances his flight from tainted inheritance. His older cousin, Cass, is a classical teacher as he leads Ike through the ledger books. Sam Fathers, the half African, half Chickasaw sylvan mentor, is like a shaman, leading Ike through the wilderness. That is until the old bear himself takes over as the boy’s supreme guide.
Ike realizes he is lost deep in the wilderness after he has left his compass and watch, the man-made and traditional contacts with space and time, on a bush. Very slowly, he does as Sam Fathers has taught him to do when lost: he makes a small circle going in one direction, then a larger one going in the opposite direction, attempting to find his own tracks. When he does not find them, or any tracks at all, he begins to walk a little faster, not panicked, but certainly frightened. At the moment of his realization that he is hopelessly lost, he sees the crooked print of the bear, filling with water. Old Ben has just stepped there. Looking up, he sees other prints of the bear also filling with water as if the bear has just made them and he follows them. They lead him to the watch and compass, glinting in a ray of sunlight. Then he sees his guide. Old Ben seems to be an apparition which soon sinks back into the wilderness looking back over his shoulder. Faulkner creates the sense that Ike, lost and panting with fear, follows a spirit which leads him out of his despair into space and time, then briefly allows himself to be seen (Ford 316-323).
So the surprise ending of “The Bear” has to do with the wilderness of truth and the ledger books of corruption. But here is the surprise: Faulkner creates an answer for Ike: artistic time in which beauty and truth cohere in eternity. He told a story about hanging up our watches and compasses until we are lost, trusting some invisible truth to lead us to safety and allow its face to be seen before some rough beast brings it down.
The complexity in Faulkner’s technique goes far beyond O. Henry’s. Yet both writers tend towards that ancient tendency of story tellers to give us a surprise, simple or complex. I think both of these writers may be saying that surprises are in store for all of us.
Aesop. “The Dog and the Wolf.” http://www.aesopfables.com.
Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. Vintage Books: New York, 1973.
Ford, Dan. “Faulkner in Pursuit of the Old Verities.” Rewriting the South: History and Fiction, ed. Lothar Honnighausen and Valeria Lerda. A Franke Verlag: Tubingen und Basel, 1993.
Kelly, Joseph, ed. The Seagull Reader, 2nd ed. W. W. Norton: New York, 2008.
Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry. Macmillan: New York, 1957.
New English Bible. Oxford University Press: New York, 1972.
O. Henry. “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” http://www.literaturecollection.com.