Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ambiguity's reward, punishment

In her NYT obituary of John Fowles today, Sarah Lyall recounts a great story about the famously open-ended Magus:

He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of "The Magus," was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. "Yes, of course they were," Mr. Fowles replied.

By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of "The Magus." "Why can't you say what you mean, and for God's sake, what happened in the end?" the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter "horrid" but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: "They never saw each other again."

Children's books rarely leave us guessing in this way, although there has been something of a trend for ambiguity in books for teens (see Patty Campbell's "So What Really Happened?" in the July/August 2005 issue of the Horn Book). Lois Lowry kept us guessing for a while there as to whether The Giver's Jonas lived or died, but she apparently later decided to go on the record as allowing that he survived. See, his sled took him deep into the snowy woods where he met a boy with a hatchet . . . . Okay, no he didn't, but with their sequels that aren't really sequels, both Lowry and Gary Paulsen sure do keep a fellow confused.


Elizabeth said...

The Pulitizer Prize winning drama Doubt (currently a hit on Broadway) is wonderfully ambiguous. The playwright, director, and actor who plays the priest have never discussed the priest's backstory with any of the women in the cast...so even the cast members aren't sure what's true. And the last line could mean many things. It's masterful.

Anonymous said...

A teacher friend of mine just had a glorious moment with The Giver. She didn't realise, upon purchasing the book, that all current editions come with an author's note at the end in which Lowry explains that Jonas lives. When my friend and her students were discussing the book's ending, one oh-so-clever student pointed to the author's note as "proof" that her interpretation was correct. Which apparently led to an absolutely lovely lesson about reading and interpretation and authorial intent. There are now 20 more seventh graders in the world who know not to distrust the evidence of their own close readings when contradicted by authority. Thank you for the teachable moment, Lois Lowry! --jadelennox

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