Denouement in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

What happens in a story after the big climax? In this lesson, we will take a look at the denouement, the part of the narrative that wraps up all the loose ends.

What Is Denouement

Denouement is from the French word denouer, which means to untie. In literature, the denouement is simply the very end of the story. It should be noted that the denouement is different from the climax. Consider how movies are structured. The climax is when the guy gets the girl or the car chase that catches the villain. The denouement, on the other hand, is the short scene after the climax where things get clarified and all the loose ends are tied up.

Think about a Sherlock Holmes novel or any other mystery story. During the climax, Holmes catches the culprit, usually by outwitting him in some way. The denouement is the closing chapter or scene where Holmes explains to Watson or the police exactly how he figured out who the culprit was and how he came to those conclusions. The denouement unravels the mystery and provides any necessary pieces of missing information.

Sherlock Holmes Ties Up Loose Ends

Typically, a denouement can be used in all forms of storytelling - whether you're reading a novel or watching a film, you'll likely find one. However, although denouements are very common, not every single story will have one. This is especially true if a story ends without all questions being answered. This is called an open ending and can possibly lead to a sequel. It can also be used when the author just wants to let the reader have their own interpretation of the conclusion.

Classic Literary Examples

As mentioned before, most novels will have a denouement. Here are a few examples from the classical canon.

Romeo and Juliet (1597)

Romeo and Juliet tells the classic tragic tale of two young star-crossed lovers. Their relationship is doomed from the start because of their families' hatred of each other. We all know how the tragedy ends. Romeo thinks Juliet is dead and kills himself. But Juliet was not really dead, just faking her death from her family. However, when she awakes and sees that Romeo has killed himself, she stabs herself to death as well.

Those events are the climax of the story. However, the denouement occurs afterwards, when the Montagues and the Capulets are all at the tomb and see that their beloved children have both committed suicide. The heads of the family know that their bitter feud must end. Lord Montague and Lord Capulet agree to stop their rivalry to avoid any further tragedy from occurring.

Capulet and Montague Agree to End the Feud

The Great Gatsby (1925)

F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel tells the tale of a naïve man named Nick from the Midwest who moves to New York for business. Nick's neighbor, Jay Gatsby, is a wealthy man who throws lavish parties every Saturday night for the single purpose of getting his old flame Daisy's attention. Daisy also happens to be Nick's cousin and she is also married to a man named Tom who is having an affair with Myrtle.

Lavish Gatsby Parties

Gatsby and Daisy eventually rekindle their love affair. But tragedy ensues when Daisy, who is driving Gatsby's car, collides into Myrtle's car and kills her. The climax of the story takes place when Gatsby decides to take the blame and tell everyone that he was driving the car, not Daisy. When Myrtle's husband George finds out that Gatsby was driving the car that killed his wife, he goes to Gatsby's mansion and shoots him. George then kills himself.

The denouement of The Great Gatsby occurs when Nick has a small, private funeral for Gatsby. He then moves back to Minnesota in an attempt to get away from everyone involved in what he deems as the moral emptiness of the rich people in Gatsby's life. No one in Gatsby's circle was faithful and for all their wealth and lavish parties, they all seemed to be morally bankrupt individuals. Nick leaves New York with a sense that the American dream is nothing more than chasing empty monetary riches that will only lead to corruption and dishonesty.

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