Dispatches: Friends, Ulysses, and the value of a story’s ending

Ellie Duncan considers how endings reflect a need for stories

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Photo: Flickr

Let me set the scene: Times Square, New York, and 3000 people have gathered to watch the final episode of Friends on the giant screen—only one of multiple viewing parties organised in the city, and only a fraction of the 51 million estimated viewers across the country.

As an unashamed devotee of a series that, despite its glaringly idealistic and dated presentation of roles and relationships, I will still turn to for a dose of comfort on a hungover day, I can only imagine the excitement of this collective viewing. Child-like, there is something tantalising about sharing the very same space of any fictional world you are invested in. More than that, the immense hype that surrounded ‘The Last One’ is a testament to the way in which we invest in stories and specifically, their endings: the crucial point we grasp at, where the story might be mapped onto our individual trajectories, or at which the story becomes an area for staking an opinion.

Extrapolating the deep significance of stories in society from the final episode of Friends may seem a little tenuous (and/or pretentious) when the characters repeatedly show very little surprise at the simplicity with which so many of their issues can be resolved, and when this is the very point of the show. Living life through the eyes of a Rachel or a Chandler is relatable up to a point—we unfortunately can’t wield packaged-up identities that people will receive uniformly, and excuse us on the basis of. But Friends still provides a happily coherent world that is recognisable if not attainable, where the possibilities for the story’s ending have been safely constrained by ten seasons of static personality.

The personal value of Friends—make of it what you will—is somehow validated by its commercial value. Providing a kind of shared cultural identity, this love of Friends finds an obvious companion in the worldwide mania for Harry Potter. I still remember dragging my mum to W.H. Smith to buy the final novel and the pride of clutching a copy in the queue. I probably was a bit too young to properly understand the psychological complexity of the characters and the weight of the ending. But I loved the plot. I imagine many readers felt the same back in the day of serialisation, a sensation of suspense nevertheless qualified by the promise of a carefully crafted conclusion—if you kept up your subscription!

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In the case of a novel series then, it might seem that the ending is the most important factor in providing a sense of coherence—the final puzzle-piece reference point (that can make re-reading a novel such a variable experience!) In other cases, simply getting to the end of a formidable book—take Ulysses for example— provides more of a sense of an ending than any satisfactory explanations actually arising in the writing.

Managing to gain a ‘whole’ perspective on Ulysses by reaching the end only amplifies the confusion, yet also expands the possibilities for drawing meaning. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller sets out directly to deny the significance of a conventional ending. But it has the same effect. Where we know there must be an ending, of any kind, we’re instantly reminded of a fictional re-ordering of reality, and the comparative perspectives that stories make us crave