Scholars have had a lot to say about the plot structuring of the novel. We’ve read everything from a super-cool theory that the plot is circular – like the canals of Amsterdam or Dante’s hell – with a series of ripples coming out from the center (the incident on the bridge, which is literally at the center of the novel), to a paper arguing that Jean-Baptiste’s five monologues are a polyptych, a series of panels constituting a whole, just like the van Eyck painting. The point is, to do a Classic Plot Analysis of this very non-classically structured book might be a stretch. But we’ll attempt it anyway.
What is an ex-Parisian lawyer doing in a seedy bar in Amsterdam? This question makes up our starting point; it’s answer makes up the rest of the novel.
This stage is a pretty obvious one: everything is going well…then all of a sudden everything is not going well. That’s a classic conflict.
As you get more and more information about Jean-Baptiste’s past, a story unfolds. He’s not what he appeared to be. His perfect alpha-male lifestyle is flawed. Every new anecdote you hear (the motorist, the women he used to degrade) is another complication, another layer in the Jean-Baptiste cake.
This is the big moment of the text – this literal fall is what sets Jean-Baptiste’s own metaphorical fall in motion. It’s no coincidence that this occurs at the very center of the novel. Seriously. Open your book to the halfway mark, this is where you’ll be.
As the story gets fishier and fishier, you realize that you still don’t know what a judge-penitent is, and quite honestly, you still don’t know why this guy is talking to you. What is the purpose of this confession? What’s up with all these oblique references to a painting and an art thief? And who is this guy?
And now, everything is revealed. We see the painting, Jean-Baptiste explains what a judge-penitent is, he makes clear his final "solution" to the judgment problem along with a lesson on his current-but-temporary fix, and he reveals why he’s been talking to you this whole time, and the part that you have played in his little "confession." This is like the mother of all denouements. Everything comes out into the open.
Jean-Baptiste’s discussion of the snow and the doves in the final few paragraphs of The Fall constitute the novel’s conclusion. Read about in more detail in character analysis, but in short, we are left questioning how legitimate the narrator’s argument (read: confession) has been. We’re left not with closure, but with a horrible, stomach-sinking, questioning of what we thought this whole time to be true. Not unlike Jean-Baptiste’s feeling standing on the bridge over the Seine, eh?