Open‐endedness is one of the most pervasive and enduring values in literary studies. Critics of all stripes have condemned teleology on both aesthetic and political grounds. This essay makes the paradoxical case that in an era of mass precarity, this insistence on openness has reached its limit. It is now blocking the kinds of political action that will be necessary to slowing the pace of climate change and building material conditions for collective flourishing. This is a moment for novel critics, then, to rethink our relationship to endings. The nineteenth‐century realist novel is particularly interesting in this respect, since it took the question of ongoing material survival especially seriously and used endings to mark a shift from narratable, unstable plotted action to stable routines that extend predictably into the future. In these plots of precarity, happy endings function not as closure or completion but as thresholds to sustainability. This essay ends with two twentieth‐century fictions—Bessie Head's 1974 A Question of Power and Leslie Feinberg's 1993 Stone Butch Blues—that conclude by combining the pleasures of material predictability and plenty with workable models of social relations that could help to guide political action in the climate crisis.
With some notable exceptions, the most canonical novels of the past century and a half do not end happily. A great number conclude with death. To name just a few: Madame Bovary, Germinal, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, The Princess Casamassima, The Awakening, Passing, The Trial, The House of Mirth, Absalom, Absalom!, Native Son, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Brave New World, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sula, The Hour of the Star, Midnight's Children, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Anil's Ghost, Never Let Me Go, Dream of Ding Village, A Little Life.
Quite a few famous literary fictions conclude with bitter resignation to the status quo. We might think of Child's Play, The Sound and the Fury, Rickshaw Boy, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Things Fall Apart, Disgrace, The Remains of the Day, Gravel Heart, and Salvage the Bones. Many also combine death with an acceptance of the brutal ongoingness of the present—Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Great Gatsby, Petals of Blood, The Road, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Bluest Eye, The Round House.
But perhaps the most common ending for serious literary fiction is deliberate indeterminacy, a future left unresolved or ambiguous. From the high modernist canon—The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Dalloway, A Passage to India, Hunger, The Magic Mountain, Il Conformista, Invisible Man, Season of Migration to the North—to contemporary fiction such as Bastard Out of Carolina, White Teeth, Kafka on the Shore, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, There There, and Three Strong Women, literary novels repeatedly cut off in medias res.
Critics have been even less enchanted with happy endings than novelists. Neat resolutions are said to restore the dominant moral and sexual order, the Law of the Father, the unity of the nation, and the legitimacy of the state and the police (Barthes; Miller, Novel; Thomas). For critics in the Marxist tradition, happy endings are illusory resolutions to the churning social contradictions that inexorably continue in the material world (Eagleton). For feminist readers like Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “the romance plot muffles the main female character, represses quest, valorizes heterosexual as opposed to homosexualities, incorporates individuals within couples as a sign of their personal and narrative success” (5). And as queer theorist Valerie Rohy argues, “it is narrative that turns queerness into LGBT identity, normalizing deviance into a difference that makes no difference and domesticating sexuality to fit the marriage plot” (177–78). Black studies scholars, too, have critiqued narrative endings. For Jared Sexton, narrative takes “world-making enjoyment” and makes it “disappear into the telos of resolution, the closure of family romance, the drive for kinship, where insistence replaces imposition” (31). Happy endings not only falsify, then; they also train us into docile submission to the status quo, encouraging us to accept ongoing injustice and violence.
Recent thinkers have turned to speculative fiction to help us to imagine better worlds, but the most influential theorists in literary studies have argued against art that sketches out an alternative to current systems because this is just another version of a falsely happy ending. Theodor Adorno writes: “One may not cast a picture of utopia in a positive manner” (Bloch 10). What is productive instead, he says, is to draw attention to “what's missing”: “the determined negation of that which merely is . . . which always points at the same time to what should be” (10, 12). For Fredric Jameson, similarly, it is crucial “to bring home, in local and determinate ways, and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself; and this, not owing to any individual failure of imagination, but as the result of the systemic, cultural, and ideological closure of which we are all in one way or another prisoners” (289). And this kind of conclusion is not limited to the Marxist tradition. Foucault makes a claim surprisingly similar to Adorno's: “to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system” (230). We are so stuck inside our own moment that we cannot imagine a genuinely revolutionary alternative. Jack Halberstam writes, “Revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine. . . . We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming” (5). The only truly radical conclusions, for most critics working over the past century, are the determinate negation and the open-ended pause. All three of the major endings of the canonical twentieth- and twenty-first-century novels—death, resignation, and indeterminacy—are politically justifiable in these terms, since even a bleak recognition of ongoing constraint and domination allows present conditions to point beyond themselves to an unrepresented and unrepresentable otherness.
I have argued elsewhere that open-endedness is one of the most pervasive and enduring values in literary studies, appearing across a wide range of schools of thought (Levine). For many critics, it is the very definition of the aesthetic. Derek Attridge claims that works of art offer up “experiences of alterity, of the impossible made suddenly possible, of the mind and, sometimes, the body being changed by new configurations, new connections, new possibilities” (143). Jonathan Kramnick argues that a disciplinary training in treating aesthetic objects “as significant in their own right” means “spelling out the open-ended or the unresolved” rather than serving particular plans or programs (27). Openness is also an explicitly political value. Queer theory, for example, understands sexuality as “fluid, open ended, constructed” rather than as a set of fixed categories (Barnard 10), and Black studies scholars have worked to unsettle the rigid structures of white supremacy, reaching instead, as Roderick Ferguson writes, toward something “else to be” (110).
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that we continue to find celebrations of open-endedness at the heart of the most recent scholarship on narrative closure. Comics are politically and aesthetically valuable, according to Hillary Chute, because they disrupt the linear structures of the traditional written text, with frames arranged in such a way that “reading can happen in all directions” (25). Ramzi Fawaz agrees: the fact that the graphic text “is fundamentally nonteleological and opposed to narrative foreclosure, and it requires no relation between unfolding panels” makes comics a queer medium, a form well suited to deviations from prescribed social and moral codes (593). Clare Pettitt and Derrick R. Spires have made a comparable case for serial forms, which are politically promising precisely because they remain unfinished and thus open history to new participants. Nineteenth-century British serials invited a whole new class of readers to see themselves as actors in the ongoing, unfolding arc of history, Pettitt shows us, while African American writers saw serials as forms that marked the unfinished project of democracy, Spires argues, allowing them to look forward to “new installments in an ongoing literary cultural agenda tied directly to imagining a robust and insurgent Black citizenship” (36). Even Tyler Bradway, who advocates a return to narrative in queer theory, is careful to distinguish narrative from teleology, making the case that we should not assume that narratives always head toward a predetermined end.
Across schools of thought, then, from Marxists to queer theorists and from champions of aesthetic autonomy to defenders of popular culture, literary and cultural studies scholars have returned, again and again, to a common premise. Politically, so the story goes, we should always be working to free ourselves from existing norms and constraints, and the aesthetic is crucial to that work because it negates the world as it is and so opens us to unmappable possibilities beyond. Teleological narrative is therefore both bad art and bad politics.
Paradoxically, however, I want to suggest that this insistence on openness has reached its limit. We live in an age of acute precarity. As neoliberal economics undoes hopes of secure work and as fossil fuels radically disrupt long-standing ecosystems, the most urgent threat facing people around the world is not oppressive stasis but radical instability—intensifying poverty and food insecurity, flooding, forest fires, violent conflicts over water, the rapid extinction of species. The poorest and most vulnerable communities are already struggling to meet basic needs, including adequate nutrition, clean air and water, and stable shelter. This condition of mass precarity is poised to worsen as climate catastrophes are fueling ever more massive displacements. We are used to thinking of entrenched norms and institutions as the worst engines of oppression, but right now most of the world's species are threatened most by rapid and multiplying forces of unmaking and devastation. Open-endedness is not primarily a source of pleasure and excitement for those who are afraid they will not be able to find their next meal or a safe place to sleep. Predictability and security have been bad words for artists and intellectuals, but they have also been much too easy to take for granted.
In our own moment, in fact, the open-endedness so beloved of artists and humanists has become eerily consonant with domination and exploitation. Authoritarian leaders on the right have been as much in love with rupturing rules and norms as any avant-garde artist. In the name of freedom, the Trump administration rolled back more than ninety-five environmental regulations, including those banning fracking on Native lands, drilling in wildlife preserves, and dumping toxins in waterways (Popovich, Albeck-Ripka, and Pierre-Louis). Climate denialism is itself oddly consonant with the humanistic value of open-endedness. The “merchants of doubt” who conducted the public campaign against climate science focused on doubt and uncertainty, and they insisted on ongoing irresolution, always calling for more studies to delay large-scale public action (Oreskes and Conway). Tech companies, too, have vaunted innovation and disruption, claiming to free work from traditional office cubicles, regulations, bureaucracy, schedules, and hierarchies. This emancipation from traditional constraints has of course brought with it a terrible precarity for much of the labor force, as workers struggle to make ends meet by stringing together multiple unpredictable “gigs.” “Neoliberal subjects,” as Wendy Brown puts it, “are controlled through their freedom” (44). In short, to embrace open-endedness is not the same as justice. Right now it is in fact intensifying suffering and exploitation at a vast scale.
I do not mean to suggest that humanists should be blamed for the climate crisis or to say that we should stop enjoying or teaching challenging and disruptive works of art. But I do think that stability is too easy to devalue or overlook for those who have it, and I want to make the case that our entrenched and prevailing values are now getting in the way of the kinds of political action that will be necessary to slowing the pace of climate change and building material conditions for collective flourishing.
For novel critics, this means rethinking our relationship to endings. Rather than reserving praise for those fictions that deliberately leave us hanging or offer us an uncompromising finality that surpasses itself in unrepresentable utopias, I will turn to novels that end by focusing our attention on the mundane work of sustaining living bodies over time. I will argue here that nineteenth-century realist novelists took the question of ongoing material survival especially seriously, using the end to mark a shift from narratable, unstable plotted action to stable routines that extend predictably into the future. These endings are not so much attempts at completions or closure as what I call here thresholds to sustainability. I will end with readings of two twentieth-century fictions—Bessie Head's 1974 A Question of Power and Leslie Feinberg's 1993 Stone Butch Blues—which conclude by combining the pleasures of material predictability and plenty with workable models of social relations that might help to guide political action in the climate crisis.
Thresholds to Sustainability
Famously, the nineteenth-century novel wraps up with marriage, inheritance, and dead or imprisoned villains, which bring the excitements of the plot to a tidy close. The bulk of that great bulky form goes to conflict, desire, and mystery, all of which train us to yearn for closure. D. A. Miller famously defines the “narratable” as dependent on “a logic of insufficiency, disequilibrium, and deferral” (Narrative 265).
The critical tradition has focused a lot of attention on certain insufficiencies, like romantic desire, social exclusion, and false accusation, which are put to rest through an integration of the self with the dominant moral and social order. But critics have had much less to say about plots that are propelled by the specific kind of narratable insufficiency that is material scarcity and uncertainty—precarity. The nineteenth-century novel is full of these. Oliver Twist, for example, gets going in earnest when the orphan, “desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery” (Dickens, Oliver 14), dares to ask for more food. José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's 1816 El Periquillo Sarniento, the first novel published in Latin America, follows its impoverished protagonist, “the mangy parrot,” through his many attempts to survive. The plot of Emile Zola's Germinal turns on the struggle for bread, and Etienne first falls for Catherine when she gives half of her own slice to him. The working-class Benina, the saintly protagonist of Benito Pérez Galdós's Misericordia, spends her days begging and haggling to feed an impoverished and ungrateful middle-class family without their knowledge. George Moore's Esther Waters struggles to find work that will allow both her and her illegitimate child to survive. Hurstwood, in Sister Carrie, breaks a strike to pay for a place to sleep, while a detached and comfortable Carrie settles down to read Père Goriot in luxurious accommodations. We also find smaller plots of precarity lodged in larger narratives, such as David Copperfield's flight from the blacking factory. And it is literal hunger that keeps Jane Eyre's plot moving after she leaves Rochester. “Solitude would be no solitude—rest no rest—while the vulture, hunger, thus sank beak and talons in my side” (Brontë 318).
Perhaps the marriage plot itself is always haunted, at least implicitly, by the specter of women's precarity. In social worlds where women have little or no legal or economic independence, marriage is not least a mode of material survival. It is notable that the Victorian novel—which Franco Moretti calls “the worst novel of the West” (214) in part because of its conformist embrace of marriage—rarely lets us forget the problem of women's survival. The novels that most famously resist or subvert the classic marriage plot are still careful to tend to their heroines' material futures. Villette leaves Lucy Snowe solitary but ensures her a reliable business and house of her own. The Woman in White closes with a suggestive ménage à trois, which also staves off ongoing precarity for the impoverished Marian. George Eliot brings Tessa and Romola together into a women-centered household, in part to allow Romola to educate Tito's children but also to keep all of them, including the naive and languid Tessa, safely housed and fed. And the novel reminds us that unmarried women, like the widow Mrs. Sparsit in Hard Times, face an ongoing material struggle: “fighting out a daily fight and . . . gobbling her insufficient income down by about the middle of every quarter, in a mean little airless lodging” (Dickens, Hard 220).
Even Pride and Prejudice, perhaps the consummate marriage plot, which delightedly settles Jane and Elizabeth in affluent marriages, takes note of the ongoing effort to keep Lydia going. In the final pages, Elizabeth adamantly refuses to let the Wickhams appeal to Darcy for an income, but she continues to tend to their survival:
Such relief . . . as it was in her power to afford, by the practice of what might be called economy in her own private expences, she frequently sent them. It had always been evident to her that such an income as theirs, under the direction of two persons so extravagant in their wants, and heedless of the future, must be very insufficient to their support; and whenever they changed their quarters, either Jane or herself were sure of being applied to, for some little assistance towards discharging their bills. (Austen 289)
Austen is clear that Lydia's economic insecurity is the consequence of her moral failings—she is no radical in this respect—but the narrative also promises to keep the Wickhams alive into the future with frequent small sums.
All of this may prompt two familiar conclusions: first, that the most conventional of plots, which ends in spiritual love, perfect compatibility, and virtue rewarded, is an ideological cover for the brute material fact that women are forced into economic dependence on men; and second, that happy endings cannot successfully contain social conflicts and contradictions. But this is where I want to suggest that nineteenth-century endings—including the happy ones—are more interesting than the critical tradition has given them credit for. That is, the novel's closure often pays a deliberate attention to ongoingness, the project of sustaining life over time. Narratable disequilibrium, or plot, is well suited to conveying experiences like hunger and homelessness. These are exactly the kinds of instabilities that can easily propel a plot forward. That is, the logic of the narratable is also the logic of precarity. The conclusion of plotted instability thus has the potential to offer not only false resolutions but also models for providing the material conditions that sustain living bodies over time. The novel's end marks not the cessation of all action but the narrative transition from precarity to sustainability.
With this possibility in mind, we can see how often precarious plots bring material insufficiency to an end. The ending of Oliver Twist, for example, moves from narratable hunger and danger to stable shelter, regular food, and a repetitive daily timetable:
The days were peaceful and serene; the nights brought with them neither fear nor care; no languishing in a wretched prison, or associating with wretched men; nothing but pleasant and happy thoughts. Every morning he went to a white-headed old gentleman, who lived near the little church: who taught him to read better, and to write: and who spoke so kindly, and took such pains, that Oliver could never try enough to please him. . . . Then, he had his own lesson for the next day to prepare; and at this, he would work hard, in a little room which looked into the garden, till evening came slowly on. (Dickens, Oliver 253)
What the happy ending offers us here is not closure in the sense of an end to all action but rather a hinge between plotted instability and the repetitive pleasures of reliable food, sleep, and study.
The ending of Esther Waters, too, can be understood not as an ending but rather as a threshold to sustainability. For most of the narrative, we follow this precarious character through crises and deprivations, including a pregnancy out of wedlock, an abusive stepfather, a spell in the workhouse, the near murder of her child, starvation wages, marriage, gambling wins and losses, and trouble with the police. The novel concludes, at last, with a widowed Esther falling into a life of regularity with her employer. “In the evening they sat in the library sewing, or Mrs. Barfield read aloud, or they talked of their sons. On Sundays they had their meetings.” In this smooth final stage of the novel, Esther's employer asks her if she would like to marry, and she responds: “Marry and begin life over again! All the worry and bother over again! Why should I marry?” (Moore 324). In place of the “worry and bother” of the marriage plot, the two women agree to “[w]ork on, work on to the end” (325), the exact duplication of the phrase conveying the sameness of the sequence to follow. This is not the stuff of narratable adventure, but it is for Esther the first genuine prospect of a sustainable life—reliable food and the regular rituals of labor and religious observance. And Moore's ending explicitly displaces the illusion that women will find stability in marriage in favor of the material routines that in fact sustain bodies and communities.
Mary Barton has often been rightly criticized for the politics of its ending, which imagines a cozy domesticity for its settler protagonists in Canada rather than resolving systemic economic injustices in Britain. In this sense, Gaskell engages in a troubling ideological concealment. But what the end also makes explicit is how crucial ongoing routines are to sustaining lives over time, and what relief they bring to those who have lived precariously and marginally. In the final scene, Mary stands, “watching for the return of her husband from his daily work; and while she watches, she listens, smiling; ‘Clap hands, daddy comes, / With his pocket full of plums, / And a cake for Johnnie’” (Gaskell 378–79). This ending joins the reliability of regular work with the pleasant expectation of everyday plenty—an abundance of plums. It is worth noting, too, that in these final moments, the novel resorts to a child's rhyme. Rhyme, unlike plot, is a form defined by its predictability: it establishes expectations of recurrence, echoing backward and anticipating forward, often in highly regular patterns. In closing with rhymed verse, then, Gaskell replaces plotted narrative with a form that is itself organized as a repetitive sequence and so lends itself well to the everyday needs that extend beyond the conclusion of the plot.
For more than a century, of course, theorists have defined art against routine. In his 1917 essay “Art as Technique,” Viktor Shklovsky praises art for its estrangement of routinized perception. Similarly, John Dewey writes: “Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine” (108). And Horkheimer and Adorno single out the repetitiveness of the culture industry—“infecting everything with sameness”—as lulling us into a deathly acquiescence to capitalist modernity (94). Even Michel de Certeau, who deliberately draws our attention to everyday life, thinks of it as a “battleground” for disrupting ordinary routines, as Elaine Auyoung explains (36). Paradoxically, perhaps, it has become routine for artists and critics to celebrate art's rejection of routine.
But human bodies do require some measure of repetition and regularity. We have a periodic need for sleep and food, which means that we must return, day in and day out, to face the same necessities. Of course, it is possible to survive with unpredictable food and radically disrupted sleep, and many people have done so, but for most, the irregularity is painful—and it can be torturous, even catastrophic. One might object, of course, that in the European context, predictable plenty for one means the erasure and exploitation of another. The Bartons' routines of abundance, for example, rest on the annihilation of Indigenous peoples and practices. But I want to stress that the political injustice here does not lie with the routines of sustainability. All societies revolve around practices of gathering and providing food, and as Potowatomi philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte makes clear, Indigenous food systems are often deliberately organized around ongoing routines of egalitarian, collective sufficiency—regular practices that sustain a food source like salmon or rice so that it remains plentiful over time, protecting reserves of food against sudden shocks like droughts or storms and preventing members from hoarding or depleting the stock. From this perspective, the Indigenous practices that have been criminalized or erased by European settlers are themselves routines of sustainability. And so, I want to make the case as much for the justice as for the necessity of predictable routines.
One reason that repetitive tasks have been devalued is that the maintenance of daily life—including preparing food, tending to infants and sick bodies, hauling water, dusting, washing, nursing, sweeping, and mending—has largely been women's work around the world. Often dismissed as monotonous and dreary, trivial and tyrannical, the daily work of keeping lives going has drawn little enthusiasm from thinkers or artists. And yet, no human community has ever done without it. As Talia Schaffer puts it, “[E]very one of us is alive because others care for us, from our helpless infancy onward” (29). Much of this caring is so routine as to be unrecognizable. Susan Fraiman writes, “The illusion of sameness—bodies still breathing, food still edible, rooms salvaged from the forces of entropy, goods flowing in, and waste flowing out—actually requires a never-ending expenditure of effort, tireless running simply to stay in place” (123). And yet, care work can also be pleasurable. As bell hooks puts it: “Historically, black women have identified work in the context of family as humanizing labor . . . as human beings showing love and care, the very gestures of humanity white supremacist ideology claimed black people were incapable of expressing” (133). Far from a source of oppression, ordinary daily tasks like cooking and childcare promise a joyful corrective to the “stressful, dehumanizing, and degrading” (133) work many African American women must perform outside of the home. Though regularly ignored, dismissed, and “invisibilized,” routines turn out to be necessary to keeping bodies going over time (Schaffer 6).
While theorists from Adorno to Foucault have argued that there is no way for us, confined in our own historical moment, to sketch out a better future, what I want to suggest is that Indigenous and feminist thinkers and nineteenth-century novelists can help us to make a pretty good guess about a few of the material conditions that will continue to be fundamental common goods. Living bodies need nutrients and rest not once but over and over, which means that human communities may well always revolve around repetitive rhythms—and especially on the recurring labor of finding, growing, gathering, preparing, and serving food and the regular need for sleep. These are not sexy or exciting facts of collective life, but they are all under grave threat right now. And so, I am willing to hazard that even the most emancipatory polis of the future will probably require exactly the material conditions that so many of the happy endings of the nineteenth-century novel go out of their way to guarantee: stable shelter and ongoing routines of labor, food, and rest.
This account of the happy ending troubles the opposition between open-endedness and closure. The ends of Oliver Twist and Mary Barton are open, in the sense that they go to some trouble to ask us to consider how their characters' lives will continue on past the last event of the plot. But they are closed, too, in the sense that they have settled their characters into endless repetitions that do not need to be narrated because their basic needs will be so securely met into the long future. For the happy ending of nineteenth-century novel, in other words, closure is continuity.
What nineteenth-century realist endings offer, too, is a twist on Shklovskian defamiliarization. For Shklovsky, our perceptions of everyday objects and experiences are dulled by routine. We need art to slow us down to pay attention to familiar things in an alert new way. What the novel of precarity does, however, is to defamiliarize the project of sustaining life over time, to slow us down to pay a careful attention to the unending, repetitive needs of the body—a project that comfortable readers are much too likely to ignore, find boring, or take for granted. In other words, if defamiliarization is valuable because it jolts us out of routine, what the happy ending defamiliarizes is routine itself.
The best example I found of this twist came at the end of Anna Karenina. This is ironic, because Tolstoy is the writer who furnishes Shklovsky with his own best instances of defamiliarization—the horse-narrator in Strider and Natasha at the opera in War and Peace. In Anna Karenina, Levin's plot is resolved not by a reconciliation, marriage, achievement, or conversion but by a newly meaningful and attentive relation to repetition:
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it. (Tolstoy 2: 426)
Tolstoy insists that repetitions are the basic fabric of life and cannot be transcended or forgotten. While this may seem like the most conservative of endings—where hierarchical social relations carry on in much the same way forever—I want to suggest that it is also conservationist, drawing our most alert attention to both the inevitability and the value of routines that stretch on into the future. Or to put this another way: like the many critics who have found subversive or emancipatory moments in texts that are otherwise repressive, I am attending to moments that focus attention on the importance of the ongoing and the predictable in texts that have very different political visions. These moments prompt an unfamiliar, but it seems to me, increasingly urgent, set of political questions about what conditions can and should be sustained into the distant future.
A Question of Power and Stone Butch Blues
I have been suggesting that in this moment of climate catastrophe and mass economic precarity, we need an alertness to sustained and sustaining routines. The nineteenth-century novel endings I have mentioned here are all helpful in that they ask us to become alert to the importance of meeting the repetitive needs of the body in stable and predictable ways over time. But these novels are also typically troubling when it comes to collective or structural solutions since they provide for one or two protagonists without solving the problem of starving children or houseless workers on the larger scale. In this section of the essay, then, I turn to two novels of precarity from the twentieth century whose endings not only provide stable material conditions for precarious characters but also try to prompt us to imagine how we might provide sustainable routines and safe shelter for all.
Bessie Head's 1974 novel, A Question of Power, spends most of its time inside the tormented mind of a biracial woman who has fled South Africa for a rural village in Botswana. Rejected by white relatives and yet too white to be incorporated into Black communities in South Africa, her very existence evidence of a crime, Elizabeth and her son leave to become stateless refugees, prohibited from returning to the South Africa that never recognized them in the first place. Elizabeth is then treated with suspicion as a light-skinned outsider in Botswana. She is profoundly isolated and wracked with misery about her own social and racial status, lurching between outbursts of superiority and terror at her exclusion.
The novel chronicles Elizabeth's terrifying psychic breakdowns and then, at last, her eventual healing. Every night for years she is persecuted by nightmarish hallucinations personified by two men at war over her soul. The novel, like South Africa, is divided into two apparently distinct parts: the first devoted to Sello, who insists on compassion and God and the brotherhood of man, and the second to Dan, who revels in materiality, bodily pleasures, and hell. But like the biracial Elizabeth, the binary opposition does not hold. Both figures eventually converge in punishing her; they revel in her sins and faults and try to strip her of all her expectations and illusions. And they taunt her with her inadequacy and isolation. “You'll only drown here,” says one hallucination: “You're not linked up to the people. You don't know any African languages” (Head 44).
It is food, both spiritual and literal, that resolves the crisis. Sello urges Elizabeth to recognize that “love is two people mutually feeding each other, not one living on the soul of another, like a ghoul,” and this is the moment that she frees herself from Dan's clutches (213). The “lever out of hell” (4) for our protagonist is the metaphor of reciprocal nourishment.
Literal food—and specifically food for the collective—provides the other major source of healing for Elizabeth. All along, she has been finding both social connections and pleasure in a community vegetable garden that has begun to bring abundance to this malnourished town. While in the past most fruits and vegetables have come all the way from Johannesburg, wilted and flavorless, the local industry garden grows bountiful carrots, sweet peppers, spinach, and beans. The project is an explicitly cosmopolitan endeavor: methods invented by a Danish man are overseen and taught by Botswanans, and the daily work is carried out by the townspeople, alongside American, British, Scandinavian, and South African volunteers. The vegetables themselves are not native plants, but they thrive better here than they did at home: “[Y]ou can't grow peas like that in England!” exclaims one of the British gardeners, and the Cape Gooseberry from South Africa, though “a complete stranger” to Botswana, “settled down and became a part of the village life,” continuing to bear fruit for jam even while the gardener is in the throes of her worst breakdown (168, 163). Elizabeth is nicknamed Cape Gooseberry because she is so closely associated with this transplanted fruit.
At one intriguing moment Elizabeth identifies with all the plants. As her friend Tom recalls it, “You said that if the garden had a big street down the middle with lots of side streets people could come and look around at everything. You said you thought the vegetables would like it too. And I thought to myself, ‘What do we have here—fish or fowl? This is one hell of a girl. Ha ha ha how does she know what vegetables like? Isn't that love, not only for people but for vegetables too?’” (202). Neither Black nor white, fish nor fowl, Elizabeth will never fit one side of a binary, but when she plans an open city of vegetables that everyone is invited to see and learn from, the result is a love that extends beyond humans to the plants themselves. The narrator says, “Her soul-death was really over in that instant, though she did not realize it” (202).
The novel ends in love, then, but it strenuously avoids romantic or sexual coupling in favor of a reverence for ordinary people and plants and the meeting of daily needs (Dyck and Heath). All along the way, the text has in fact refused the form of the pair. In her nightmares, Elizabeth repeatedly sets up binary oppositions, but these give way to unstable triangles: Dan and Sello struggle over Elizabeth; Sello and Medusa join forces to torture her; Dan claims that the woman he calls “The Womb” will “serve as the balance” between himself and Elizabeth (120).1 In fact, no self has ever been altogether individuated in this novel. Elizabeth understands her own mind as porous and easily invaded by other personas; her small son imitates the adults around him; and Black people's suffering, Elizabeth decides, has done away with all ideas of “I and mine,” which is “death” (142). Philosophically, the novel ends by imagining humans as neither divine nor greedy and self-serving, but sharing, porous, interdependent. And formally, the narrative concludes with a working triad—a multinational, multiracial team who are committed to laboring for the common good—Elizabeth and her friends Kenosi, a Black Botswanan, and Tom, a white American.2
While one might certainly object on political grounds to any celebration of imported plants and methods to take the place of Indigenous species and practices, the novel has been clear from the beginning that the traditional struggle to find food for the village is dangerous and does not produce enough to nourish everyone. The community would be “beautiful,” Elizabeth thinks when she arrives, if it were not so malnourished (14). The happy ending to this novel is thus a solution to a real material need, and what it promises is the ongoing—shared laboring routines to nourish and sustain the collective over time: “Tomorrow they would plant out more carrots and beetroot; there'd be time today for seedling work. And so the morning flew by. The world had returned to normal again” (220). Normal, here, is not heterosexual marriage, not national unity, not empire, not assimilation, not liberal individualism, but the endless routines of working together to provide adequate food for a community.
My final example here is Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg's 1993 novel about a butch lesbian in upstate New York who begins a medical transition and then stops, deliberately remaining nonbinary rather than becoming a trans man. Critics have noticed the surprising emphasis on the importance of home, and specifically homemaking, in this novel of nonconformity. As Jay Prosser writes, “Home is the structuring principle of many narratives, not simply because of the familiarity, safety, fixity that it connotes, but because of its symbolic intersection with very powerful notions of belonging” (485–86). Since queer thinkers and writers have considered “gendered unbelonging and mobility” to be “subversive and celebratory,” Jess's longing for home may seem distinctly “unqueer” (490). But to define queerness against home misses the ways that being literally unhoused can be a cause of intense suffering. In Extreme Domesticity, Fraiman reads a passage near the end of the novel, where Jess creates a safe and comfortable home after a long period of sleeping in twenty-four-hour movie theaters. Jess paints, cleans, and buys linens and bath soaps at a department store. While critics have typically written off home decorating as conventionally feminine and consumerist, Fraiman urges us to see Jess's homemaking as crucial to the struggle to survive: “an audacious effort to produce a basic sense of physical and psychic security by someone who has been repeatedly violated” (41). Safe shelter is not only an ideological illusion, in other words; it is also a material necessity. Formally speaking, Stone Butch Blues is structured as both an anti-teleological narrative—a gender transition that is partially reversed—and one the most classic teleological arcs—the struggle to find home.3
The passage Fraiman reads comes near the end of the novel, but it is in fact only Jess's penultimate home, and while it is safe and comfortable, it is missing one of the elements Jess most yearns for—companionship. I want to focus on the ways that the novel's ending goes to some lengths to build a closing version of home that is both emotionally and materially sustaining. This ending is also expansive, imagining not only a good home for its specific protagonist but the collaborative work of making homes for everyone.
After her comfortable apartment literally goes up in smoke—burned for insurance money by her landlord—Jess is forced to move again. And this time she is too miserable and exhausted to clean or paint or furnish the grimy apartment she can afford. “My apartment is just where I sleep,” she says (252). But gradually, step by step, she begins to create a richly sustainable life. First, Jess and her trans neighbor Ruth slowly build a friendship that is sparked in part by shared sensory pleasures. They find connection in the music overheard between the walls, and the smell of cooking rhubarb draws Jess to Ruth's door. As Jess begins to eat for pleasure rather than just to satisfy hunger, she starts to take pleasure in visual beauty and domestic comforts. Ruth says, “You're hungry, Jess. Your senses are starved” (253). As in A Question of Power, hunger in Stone Butch Blues is both metaphorical and literal, as Ruth's delicious salads and pies are part of a reawakening of delights of all kinds, including friendship, sex, and social belonging.
After she has rediscovered the pleasures of the body, Jess makes efforts to repair old social bonds, apologizing to those she has hurt, like Frankie and Jan; thanking those who have helped her, like Al and Ruth; and forgiving those who have hurt her, like Duffy. She cannot repair all of the broken connections—her promise to return to the two children she has loved is impossible to keep—but she works to reestablish connectedness with a range of friends after years of isolation. The narrator insists that this effort at reconnection is not a turning backward—a return to a lost home—but the creation of new grounds for sociability. In this sense, the narrative explicitly refuses the idea that narrative teleology always or necessarily reinstates a repressive conventional order. Grant asks Jess if she would like to go back to the “old days,” and Jess replies, “Not even at gunpoint. The only things I miss are the ways we stood up for each other, how we tried to make a home for each other. And we could do that right here” (283). Home, here, is not nostalgia for the past but a collective struggle for the future.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the novel ends by focusing on political action. In the final chapter, Jess is inspired to speak up for trans people at a rally where she hears the words lesbian and gay. As she speaks of fighting back against transphobia “mostly . . . alone,” members of the crowd begin to respond to her, and she makes a plea for all queer people to “help fight each other's battles so that we're not always alone” (296). Her speech excites her to want to get involved in making change, and she contacts her old union friend, Duffy, who urges her to come and work with him as a labor organizer (299). Unlike Bessie Head, Feinberg does ground Jess in a loving couple at the end, but rather than enclosing her within the walls of a private home, the love between two trans characters, Jess and Ruth, enables the protagonist to expand beyond the intimacy of the couple to create and sustain many other social bonds.4 Jess's ending means finding safety, sensual pleasure, and connectedness within domestic walls, but it also explicitly expands that work to a vision of politics where everyone is “[trying] to make a home for each other.”
While theorists from Theodor Adorno to Ramzi Fawaz have been decrying teleology in favor of the open-ended pause, political activists have been increasingly insistent on the importance of goals to the achievement of real social change. As anti-WTO organizer David Solnit puts it, “A lot of radicals talk shit about anything short of smashing the state, but they don't have any idea of how to take necessary steps in that direction” (qtd. in Dixon 112). Climate activist Daniel Hunter points out that lots of movements end up fetishizing certain principles and tactics, which leads them to fall into the trap of “endless actions” that are simply repeated over and over (22). What is more effective, Hunter argues, are campaigns that plan strategies around the achievement of clear goals, which build and sustain participation over time, and those larger numbers in turn keep the pressure on powerful organizations and politicians who usually wait for activists to give up and go away (24–25).
Political theorist Rodrigo Nunes argues that the revolutionary Left has often been guilty of its own version of teleology, a “magical thinking” that at some hazy future moment when conditions are somehow and suddenly right, the people will rise up and change everything (151). The danger of this covert teleology is substantial: it persuades us that history will unfold without our participation. A faith in spontaneity thus leads to a deliberate inaction. And an insistence on open-endedness can seem virtuous, but it works neatly with an apparent disavowal of ends to allow us to abdicate responsibility to take action in the present. “A potential that remains indefinitely open will always be more radical than whatever actually exists; by not being invested in anything finite and limited, it excludes no possibilities and cannot be subject to perversion or decay. . . . To be radical is then not to transform positive reality, but to have no truck with it: to negate it so thoroughly, to exceed it so completely, that nothing could ever be done here and now that would ever be adequate” (274). We are too prone to refuse to try to realize our collective potential now, Nunes argues, in exchange for “the faint messianic hope of an event that could one day inaugurate an order that will not be an order, an actuality that will exclude no potential” (275).
It is this messianic teleology that shapes so much work in literary studies. It feels radical; it frees us from the messy practical work of addressing conflicting interests; and it delivers us from the responsibility to take action in the present. In other words, criticism's long love affair with spontaneity and open-endedness is a recipe for losing when it comes to political struggle. And what activists insist is that teleology does not simply reinforce the status quo. Goals afford the realization of aspirations of all kinds—including the radical restructuring of the social. What if we took our cue from the endings sketched by Bessie Head and Leslie Feinberg, then, and tried to figure out how to reach the goal of feeding and sheltering everyone into the sustained and sustainable future?
As a literary studies scholar, you might claim that this kind of political action is not your real business, fine for your spare time but outside of the sphere of your professional responsibilities. Yet it is my argument here that it is precisely the institution of literary studies—with our usual canon of novelists and theorists—that has trained us to valorize the excitements of open-endedness and to understand inaction as the most radical of postures. To me, that no longer seems persuasive.
So, let me close not with open-endedness but with an invitation to join active campaigns that are working to slow the worst effects of climate change and keep the planet livable for many species. Maybe you would consider participating in the struggle to stop the financing of fossil fuels and agribusiness. There are probably groups already working to divest your campus or alma mater. There is also a growing movement to push banks and retirement funds to divest from fossil fuels—perhaps including your own. Or maybe you are more excited by local projects and would like to get involved in creating community gardens or attending town council meetings on zoning and housing. You might want to do some reading to find out whether you are persuaded by the movement for carbon pricing, which is a market solution but is also predicted to bring emissions down quickly (Citizens Climate Lobby). Perhaps you are most energized by direct actions and want to support the ongoing protests against fracked gas pipelines or the Extinction Rebellion movement.
While you might well critique any one of these as too small or specific, there is evidence that each part of the struggle draws strength from the others, and all can and do work together to advance the work of climate justice. As Kai Heron and Jodi Dean argue, three groups—scientists, social justice activists, and Indigenous leaders—each with its own epistemic and political positions, have together managed to shift the whole mainstream of public opinion away from climate denialism. “Allied with science, environmentalists shed their eco-hippy personae to become representatives of a fact-based critique of mass consumption.” Meanwhile, “the leadership of indigenous people [grew] to national and international prominence as they forged collective opposition to pipelines and fracking.” And then “attention to sacrifice zones, slow death, and the persistent deprivations of environmental racism helped environmentalists move beyond the elitist image long associated with conservationism.” In other words, different environmental movements, each marginal or partial in isolation, have actually strengthened, sustained, and transformed each other, providing momentum for larger and larger scales of change.
As for me, I am off to my weekly TIAA-Divest! meeting. TIAA manages over $1 trillion in assets, much of it the retirement funds of university and nonprofit employees in the United States. They are invested in many of the most destructive fossil fuel giants, including Chevron and Adani, and they have been involved in land grabs and deforestation in the Amazon and in the United States, which have displaced Black and Indigenous communities. See you there?
For excellent readings of the role of sexuality in the novel, including its troubling homophobia, see Jolly; Munro (144–68).
G. Stead Eilerson argues that the reader, too, is expected to be porous and interdependent: “Just as her dead mother has asked her to bear the stigma of insanity with her—‘“Share it with me,” she says’—and just as later Elizabeth becomes aware ‘of subconscious appeals to share love, to share suffering’ as a means of deeper involvement, so also are readers asked to submit themselves to the kaleidoscopic tumbling of the text, different and more challenging than a mere intellectual approach” (158).
For an intriguing reading of the importance of the nonhuman, and specifically, the stone and the dildo, see Rodness.
For a critique of Feinberg's use of Indigenous cultures to support and center her own struggle, see Moses.