Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Ending in the Middle: Closure, Openness, & Significance in Embedded Medieval Narratives

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Ending in the Middle: Closure, Openness, & Significance in Embedded Medieval Narratives

Article excerpt

During the past half century, critical debate about how narratives end and the meaning of those endings has become increasingly vexed. The flashpoint is, of course, the issue of literary closure. While many critics would agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith's definition of closure as the "effect of finality, resolution, and stability at the end of a poem" ("Closure" 22), not all would agree with her that closure is "a generally valued quality" ("Closure" 22). (1) While Smith praises closure for enabling a reader to experience a poem as a highly organized sequence with a unique design (Poetic Closure 2), Umberto Eco indicts the closural ending for imposing "a range of rigidly preestablished and ordained interpretive solutions ... [that] ... never allow the reader to move outside the strict control of the author" (6). More recent critical writings have rejected authorial intention, and hence control; nevertheless, it is precisely the authority claimed by the ending, an authority vested in inimical historical contexts and patriarchal power structures, that renders closure and narrative itself so pernicious to many feminist readers. (2) Thus, Alison Booth writes, "Not only does closure ... always appear duplicitous, but novelistic endings also have seldom been anything more than double or binary choices for most female characters.... free play appears to end for the objects of representation" (2). (3)

From critics who attack closure as repressive to those who question openness--Wayne Booth, for instance, denying the possibility of evading final resolution even for literature commonly classified as "open"--the range of critical perceptions concerning literary endings reflects, in part, assumptions regarding the nature of language. Derrida's meditations on language in "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," for instance, identify fixed, authoritative "presence" with the absent center or origin of discourse, the latter "a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified is never absolutely present outside a system of differences" (Rice and Waugh 151-52). If we think of this authorizing "center" as typified, in literary works, by the closed ending, that moment when the design of the text is unveiled, much of the debate over closure becomes clearer, if still unresolved. (4) Accordingly, a literary critic such as Peter Brooks, influenced by Derrida, reads the "shaping ends" (19) of narrative as always promising and ever evading authoritative meaning: "Any final authority claimed by narrative plots, whether of origin or end, is illusory.... It is the role of fictional plots to impose an end which yet suggests a return, a new beginning, a rereading" (109). (5)

This revisioning of the ending has, however, further implications for endings in medieval narrative. Here texts seem obsessed with endings, not only moving toward a final, often conclusive resolution, but also returning repeatedly to "the end" before the end by means of intercalated narratives that themselves incorporate endings. In such structures the return, new beginning, and rereading characteristic of Brooksian versions of narratives are multiplied to dizzying extents, with closure and openness revised as well.

This essay will visit the endings of three embedded narratives functioning at the border of openness and closure. These narratives successfully point toward final textual ends, even as they work as part of textual middles and, in their endings, negotiate textual beginnings, all the while playing with the significance which endings of traditional texts are thought to authorize. My examination of the tale of Narcissus from Guillaume de Lorris' Roman de la Rose, the discourse of Pier della Vigna from Dante's Inferno 13, and the speech of a metamorphosed Fileno in Boccaccio's Filocolo suggests the extent to which medieval narratives incorporate and forestall endings, in the process negotiating an intimate, symbiotic relationship between openness and closure. …

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