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Spoilers and endings

An amusing exercise of Facebook newsfeed reconnaissance is seeing people avoid spoilers, warn of spoilers, and decry others who spout spoilers of books, movies and TV shows that are currently in trend. This could be said when I scrolled down my feed around the time “How I Met Your Mother” concluded its nine-year run. And what about the shock and disillusionment that rocked social media when the last season of “Game of Thrones” ended? Similarly, blockbuster movies—(insert any Marvel film adaptation), (insert any YA fiction film adaptation), “Gone Girl,” and the most recent of which, “Interstellar”—commonly evoke many a Tweet and a status post about the happy ending, that unexpected twist, the unsettling or mind-boggling resolution of the conflict, the dissatisfaction over the nonresolution of the conflict, and so forth.

The irritation that springs from seeing spoilers discloses our fascination with endings, with results, with action. I am not talking about gun-toting heroes per se a la Bruce Willis in the “Die Hard” series, but more about what motivates us to watch these films and to consume stories. We are concerned with the movement of cause and effect, with progress—what happened next? How did the story end?

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Of course, as early as childhood, the action and the ending have been the backbone of every fairytale we have poured ourselves into—once upon a time, and they lived happily ever after. The temporal sequence of the language of these childhood texts itself marks the stories’ plot development. Let’s go even further in time, to Aristotle’s basic plot structure of a tragedy—the beginning, middle and end. Memories of freshman literature class abound, that perfect triangle that is the plot of “Oedipus Rex.”

I grew up reading with the obsession of finding out how the story unfolds. Isn’t that what all good stories are made of? But as my tastes evolved, I realized that most of the stories that stayed with me over the years were not (merely) due to the perfect triangle of Sophocles. True enough, most of the stories that haunted me and made me shudder from awe are the ones that articulate and bring into words (or shots, as for movies) the nitty-gritty, the details that cannot be summed up in one word in real life. And the genius is he who can capture these wonderful nuggets of reality into art. Just like a painter, a photographer, a musician, a literary/film artist is one who can depict panoramas of the little things that give meaning and phrase to an otherwise mundane episode of the everyday.

Thus, it is far easier for me to remember scenes—or snippets of a scene—than the resolution of the story. Up to this day I cannot forget the way Mitya Karamazov would explode into mad passion over Grushenka, or the buildup in suspense before Snegiryov refuses the money that Alyosha offers him as recompense. Never mind that the culprit is [spoiler alert!] Smerdyakov (although that is a fantastic mystery story in itself). Sometimes, I don’t even remember how the story turned out. Who really cares if this or that character died, or who won or lost in the end? Isn’t the underrated yet overwhelming description or depiction of love, lust, anger, envy, of raw emotion, more compelling?

Needless to say, I don’t mind when people “spoil” the story for me. What I am after cannot be summed up in one sentence, anyway. Knowing how it ends is part of the fun, but only part of the fun. Thus, I can never forget the ending of “Anna Karenina” even if I have never read it in my life. My best friend told me straight out [spoiler alert!], she threw herself under a speeding train. This just makes me want to read the novel all the more. Is it more important to know that the heroine killed herself, or her motivations?

Don’t get me wrong. I love good endings. I love them all—happy, sad, predictable, unexpected. Maybe I love them all the more so because I am not as obsessed with the result than the conflict itself. Who was it that said that a good story is not about its resolution but about how it presents the problem?

In Japanese literature class several years ago in Sophia University, we studied Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” that dark yet delightful classic short story. I remember thinking, not this again, because I had already studied it in another class the previous year. To my surprise, instead of dissecting the plot like we did in freshman year, the professor focused on the idea of Mystery.

In the story, the mystery is never solved a la Sherlock Holmes, with all intricate minor details answered and accounted for. In fact, there is no resolution at all. There is only the hint of who could have done the killing, but at the same time, of who could have not—a striking contrast to the whodunit stories that we are familiar with. Akutagawa’s story forces us to meditate on Mystery itself, and shows how the Japanese—instead of obsessing over solving the mystery, which is the highlight of Western mystery stories—rather prefer to dwell on the inexplicability of Mystery and the many truths it unfolds. As happily ever after as any ending could be.

And what of our own endings, that anticlimactic deus ex machina—death? There is hardly any surprise there, hardly any happily ever after; the only question is when, how.

Oftentimes, our Life Stories end quietly, unremarkably. Is the pleasure derived from the unfolding denouement of a made-up story hinged on the predictability of our own?

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This is where this essay ends.

Jenny Jean B. Domino, 26, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, cum laude, from Ateneo de Manila University in 2010. She was the recipient of the Program Award of the School of Humanities’ Department of English. She is a member of the University of the Philippines College of Law Class of 2014.

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TAGS: Aristotle, literature, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, spoiler alerts
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