Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howell all have problematic endings that may not logically follow any preceding action in the novel. Many critics find themselves asking the same question regarding Twain's Huck Finn: Does this ending belong to the novel? The conclusion does not seem to fit the critical scheme. Many factors contribute to this ongoing debate. The appearance of Tom to save the day is uncalled for. By the time Tom appears, Huck's character has sufficiently progressed so that Huck could have saved the day by himself. By bringing Tom back into the book, Huck's character takes an enormous bound backwards. He is again rendered Tom's devoted sidekick. The most perplexing factor of this asymmetrical novel is the colossal mood shift from quiet dignity to painstakingly extreme, but comical, in chapter 31.
It was unheard of to break the unspoken rigid rules of consistency stating tragic or comical moods must be uniformly maintained. The entire narrative seems to be leading up to an electrifying finale, however, by reading on, the reader is left with the same lingering notion: "That's it?!?!?" What happens to Huck and Tom? How did Jim feel about being liberated? Will Huck and Jim continue to stick together? "Tom's most well now and got his bullet around his neck on a watch-guard and a watch and is always eyeing what time it is, and so there aint nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." (chpt. 31) Samuel Clemens is tremendously fortunate that his novel became the classic it was, even with such a weakly-written conclusion.
Similarly, in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel's life seems one of untamed promise right up until the point that the novel concludes. At that point we may go back into the story to seek out clues that would shed some light on why she chose the life she did. Is it her fear of sex and rejection? Apprehension of her own procreative urges? Lack of a father figure? The phenomenal patterns we unearth during the story are only made real or meaningful by her ultimate destiny and our power of retrospection. This peculiar outcome monopolizes the reader's attention by shifting from the comfort of submission to marriage and commitment to the individual pursuit of happiness and freedom.
The Rise of Silas Lapham is a story of great irony. Like Huck, Lapham is an interesting "failure" though intricacies leave this work less predictable. Lapham's failing business is inversely related to his moral character rising. This self-made business man's fall from aristocracy where he never quite fit in anyway, and his descent to the commonplace people has a plethora of endings; some happy some sad. The novel gains its suspense not from a romantic stratagem of daring and exploration, but from an everyday, run of the mill clutter of somewhat heroic though naturally mottled human beings and their experiences.
A "good" novel, in my opinion, is one of twisted plot and unsuspected action. A predictable outcome and a logically organized order of events makes for a pointless read and dims the "enlightenment factor" that I crave and seek out when interpreting a literary work. A "problematic" ending is in the eye of the beholder. A seasoned literature buff will take the meat and leave the bones of any work they happen to come across and devote even a miniscule amount of time to.