What’s Up With the Ending?
There’s a lot to talk about in the last few paragraphs of The Fall. In short, Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s conclusion calls into question all of the arguments he makes in his "confession." We begin to doubt his judge-penitent solution. There’s a lot to be said about this, and we talk about it Jean-Baptiste’s "Character Analysis." Right now let’s talk about one word, the very last word in the novel: "Fortunately!" (Note: it’s one word if you’re reading the more popular O’Brien translation. If you’re rocking the Penguin Modern Classics edition, then it’s two little words: "Thank goodness!" Either way, you’re dealing with the same idea.)
"Fortunately" what? Jean-Baptiste has just condemned all of man to an eternity of mutual enslavement. What is there to be so happy about? Backtrack a sentence or two. Jean-Baptiste repeats the words he’s been muttering to himself ever since that night on the bridge in Paris. He asks the woman to throw herself off the bridge a second time, so that he may have the chance of saving her – and himself.
This tells us two things: 1) it was Jean-Baptiste’s failure to save the woman that ruined his life, and 2) Jean-Baptiste still desperately regrets his failure to act. But it’s the final line – the "fortunately!" bit – that tells us that Jean-Baptiste is still just as duplicitous as he was before. He’s glad he can’t be granted a second chance, because he knows full well that, given the opportunity, he would again fail to act. He would again stand on the bridge and let the woman drown without lifting a finger.
When we think about it, this isn’t new information. Look back to Chapter One when Jean-Baptiste tells you he never crosses bridges at night. "Suppose, after all, that someone should jump in the water. One of two things – either you do likewise to fish him out and, in cold weather, you run a great risk! Or you forsake him there and suppressed dives sometimes leave one strangely aching" (1.15). He’s not exactly desperate for the chance to prove his bravery.
This is par for the judge-penitent course. Jean-Baptiste fully admits that he acts exactly the same way now that he did in Paris. It’s just that now he admits he that he’s morally bankrupt, whereas before he pretended to be virtuous and exemplary. He’s no longer a hypocrite. Or is he? This is the very question brought to light by the ending of The Fall. Jean-Baptiste 1) begs for the woman to throw herself off the bridge again, but 2) is grateful that the woman could never possibly throw herself off the bridge again. Sounds hypocritical, doesn’t it? If it is, then Jean-Baptiste’s "solution" is a farce. On the other hand, because he recognizes his own cowardice, perhaps he’s saved from the label of "hypocrite." We can’t really say for sure, one way or the other.