In Praise of Spoiled Endings

Why knowing the ending doesn't always ruin a book.

As might be expected of an article about spoilers, this one includes some. If you don’t want to hear about the ending of either The Great Gatsby or Atonement, stop here!

Had Moses been alive in the age of Netflix, the famous stone tablets he brought down from the mountain might have included this 11th commandment: No Spoilers.

At a time when many of us binge-watch and binge-read, and when the Web has made possible a nearly ceaseless proliferation of recaps, reviews, forum discussions, and fan fiction, it’s become difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to keep dramatic turns and twist endings (whether they appear on the screen or on the page) under wraps.

As a result, the fear and loathing we feel for spoilers has become intense. Most articles that discuss more than the bare outline of a story include, much like this one, a spoiler warning. If they don’t, comments-section rage ensues. Dozens of think pieces and even an etiquette guide have been penned on the topic and its many complexities.

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I’m not definitively for or against spoilers; I see the purpose of warnings and know better (from experience) than to give a good ending away. But I do take issue with the basic premise on which all our spoiler mania rests, which is this: Knowing the end of a story ruins, absolutely and without exception, one’s experience of it.

That, in my opinion, simply isn’t true. And, in fact, I’ve come to think knowing the ending—especially the ending of a book—can make a story even better.

Over the course of my reading life I’ve had many endings spoiled for me, whether via the mouths of unwitting friends or through some accident of my own research. But, in thinking about spoilers, two specific examples come to mind.

The first was my earliest experience of being spoiled in a major way. I was reading The Great Gatsby in ninth grade and, wanting to know more about the history of the book as I read along, I visited a Web page (SparkNotes, perhaps, or Wikipedia) that gave away, in no unclear terms, the book’s famously tragic ending.

I was as yet in the first half of the book, when the story’s setting—flapper-era New York—is still infused with a thick atmosphere of splendor and promise. I remember being not only annoyed but also shocked by the news that, by the story’s end, characters would die, relationships would implode, and things would go generally, morbidly awry.

But then, something interesting happened. As I read on (for I refused to give up), this knowledge of the conclusion had the effect of breathing new purpose, even ominous intelligence, into the prose. The narrator Nick Carraway’s lush descriptions of Gatsby’s outlandish parties accrued new depth; what might have seemed, to an unspoiled reader, like so many confectionary set pieces became signals, for me, of the dark depths toward which the story was headed. As I progressed through the story I experienced a new kind of anticipation—one centered not on the question of what would happen but on that of how the author, Fitzgerald, would convert such a halcyon vision into a hell.

When I arrived at the book’s final page, I found I was just as satisfied by the ending—not because it took me by surprise but because it shed light on Fitzgerald’s gifts as a storyteller: his eye for detail, his brilliancy with mood-setting, his ability to guide his characters through transformations that, while swift and dramatic, are nevertheless realistic, and even, oddly enough, inspiring.

Some years later, I had a similar experience with Ian McEwan’s Atonement. To an unspoiled reader this novel might seem like a beautifully written though ultimately conventional story of war, wealth, love, and betrayal. And it seemed that way to me until, before I was halfway through the book, I heard from a friend who mistakenly thought I’d finished it what happens in the end.

In short, we learn, on the book’s final page, that the story we’ve been reading is a fiction concocted by its main character, Briony. Her purpose in obscuring the truth, she tell us, was to create the sense of hope, transcendence, and finality that stories give; in reality, what happened is far bleaker.

With this in mind, the story changed, transforming from a literary historical novel into a dynamic postmodern text that played with ideas of narrative, memory, and truth. While I missed out on the shock of the ending, I was left, as at the end of Gatsby, with a perhaps greater reverence for McEwan’s gifts.

It sometimes seems that me that, by focusing on the end of a book as its single greatest source of pleasure, we lose sight of other, equally satisfying aspects of reading.

After having the endings of The Great Gatsby and Atonement (along with several other books) spoiled for me, I’m no longer afraid of spoilers. If a book is good, it’ll still be good, even if you go in knowing where it ends up. Sometimes, as in the two cases above, the journey there is only more enjoyable.

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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