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date: 15 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Each temporal sequence (specifically, in language) has its own structure and dynamics, but the beginning and the ending may be said to be universally important or significant points within such a sequence. They constitute the boundaries, or frame, of the literary text, separating it—and the world it projects—from the world around us, thus playing an important role in determining its basic shape.

Locating the textual point of beginning is often somewhat complex or problematic (typically more so than that of the ending), because, at least since the advent of the print era and the book format, the “main” text is accompanied—or surrounded—by other materials collectively known as paratexts (e.g., titles, epigraphs, various kinds of prefaces) and may be likened to a threshold through which the reader gradually passes from the “outside” to the “inside” of a text. Considered as a threshold, one of the beginning’s most important potential functions is to “draw us in,” or be seductive and help carry us over from the world we inhabit to the world the author has imagined. The beginning is also particularly important in creating a primacy effect, setting off our mind in a certain direction and thereby influencing our entire reception of the work. We may make a broad distinction between “orientational” and “abrupt” textual beginnings—the latter type confronting the reader with an ongoing action—without supplying preliminary information necessary for its understanding. Historically, such beginnings became widespread from the late 19th century, with the transition from realism to modernism. A phenomenon that is particularly intriguing in the context of narrative beginnings is that of the exposition, since by definition it always constitutes the beginning of the mimetic or actional sequence but is not necessarily located at the beginning of the textual sequence. Moreover, the point of transition between the exposition and the primary narrative action (or fictive present) may be considered as another kind of “beginning,” which plays an important role in how the narrative is perceived as a whole.

Delimiting the ending as a textual unit involves a fundamental issue of a different kind than those relevant to beginnings: since the ending follows everything else in the text, it is difficult to consider it without considering through it, so to speak, the text as a whole. The understanding and appreciation of endings depend to a large extent on what has preceded them. But at the same time they tend to play an important role in retrospectively shaping it and often have a lasting impact on its evaluation. The critical study of the ending has paid a good deal of attention to closure, so much so that there is a widespread tendency to conflate the two concepts; it is important, however, to differentiate between them. Whereas ending refers to the text’s termination point, closure refers to the sense of an ending: that is, not to the textual termination point itself but rather to a certain effect, or perceptual quality, produced by the text. The common distinction between “closed” and “open” endings is quite crude in its basic form and should be regarded as a finely gradated and multidimensional continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. Broadly speaking, endings that tend toward the open end of the continuum are typical of modern literature (and heavily valorized by modern criticism), and like “abrupt” beginnings they testify to a desire not to accentuate the boundaries of the work of art.

Keywords: beginning, opening, ending, closure, sequentiality, paratext, exposition, fictive present, frames

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