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The Ending of ‘The Guest’ Is Anyone’s Guess

Aug 15, 2023

By Keziah Weir

In an era of frantic IP grabs and rampant adaptation, it’s nigh impossible to avoid dreamcasting popular books. I personally prefer a more musical exercise: I slot in an outro song, what might play as the final image dissolves in my mind. Nico and the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” closes Rebecca, say. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” ushers out Crime and Punishment. And for the enigmatic ending of Emma Cline’s The Guest, this summer’s deeply unsettling Hamptons beach bag must-have, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”

Imagine it, if you’ve read it. Alex, our wayward antihero, kicked out of her boyfriend Simon’s house and tailed by Dom, a shady acquaintance, has spent the majority of the book clawing her way from pool to pool, air-conditioned room to air-conditioned room, leaving only destruction in her wake as she waits out the days before Simon’s Labor Day party. There, she believes, she’ll enact a triumphant return. But when she arrives at the party, “this was all wrong—why was Simon making that face? Why did his eyes seem to look at something beyond her?” The book’s final lines:

Okay. Simon had been waiting for her. She would go to him. He was waiting for Alex, and all she had to do was walk over.

Now, she told herself, willing her limbs to work. She didn’t move.


A long pause, broken by the pure tremolo of an electric guitar and the smooth, smooth voice of Stephen Stills: “There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear…”

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What exactly is happening at the end of The Guest? Those last lines yawn open like a gaping wound. It’s The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier walking into the ocean. (“Her arms and legs were growing tired,” Kate Chopin writes. “She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again.”) It’s the onion-rings-and-parallel-parking cut-to-black of the Sopranos finale. (“Don’t Stop Believin’” would, incidentally, be another great closing song for The Guest.) The entire book is something of a Rorschach test for its reader: Does Alex lean victim or villain? Which ominous threads point to which inevitable conclusion? Is death on the brain, or something more carceral?

My own Rorschach reaction as I read those final sentences was that Dom, her maybe-pimp, is Chekhov’s gun. Dom’s the reason Alex is so keen to hightail it out of the city for the summer, as he’s displeased with her for making off with his cash and drugs. Dom, who “agreed to meet her at the train station,” who “sent a screenshot of Simon’s company website,” who once woke Alex with his hands around her throat, of whom Alex is “genuinely afraid.” When Alex sees Simon looking not at but past her, I figured it’s because he’s watching Dom, who has arrived to—what? Place her in a second, more successful chokehold? Shoot her, rendering her motionless for a split second before her brain shuts off for good?

Is the evidence there, though, on the page, for such an ending? Dom does loom increasingly large in the narrative, and there’s precedent for his stalking. Back in the city, “leaving her place one morning, she’d spotted Dom across the street. Dom lingering on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets.” But Alex has a slippery brain; she’s as pilled-up and unreliable as a close-third-person narrator gets. The word maybe appears in The Guest 100 times.

And Dom is far from being Alex’s only ticking time bomb. There are her two car accidents, including one that is the penultimate scene, leaving her injured to some degree. There’s her near-drowning six pages in. There’s Simon’s assistant, who seems to know her game. (Maybe it’s not Buffalo Springfield that plays Alex off the stage. Maybe it’s Laura Branigan—Alex as a stand-in for the mythic Gloria.) There’s Simon’s friend George, whose painting she defaces. The clouds may part for Simon’s party, but they sure gather for Alex.

Why are her limbs unable to move despite her willing them to? That could certainly suggest her shuffling off this mortal coil—except that Alex is often trying and failing to do things: to smile, to appear calm. During that first dangerous swim, “she tried to head back in, toward the beach, but she wasn’t seeming to get anywhere, her strokes eaten up by the water.” Just before she bangs up Simon’s car, “[s]he tried to back into a driveway to turn around.” Constantly, throughout: “She tried to turn on her phone.”

Do clues lie elsewhere? Perhaps in John Cheever’s 1964 story “The Swimmer,” the title of which, Cline told Vanity Fair, topped the book’s manuscript for much of the writing process? In it, a married father of four named Neddy leaves a gathering to swim from pool to pool, all the way home. “Had you gone for a Sunday-afternoon ride that day, you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulder of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, or had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool?” When Neddy arrives at his house, expecting to find his wife and daughters waiting for him, the door handles are rusty, the gutters loose. The place is empty.

By Bess Levin

By Kase Wickman

By Charlotte Klein

“I remembered the story as this surreal journey that starts off so light, and this sense for the character that they can live this way forever,” Cline told me in that VF interview. “And by the end, ending up in this place that’s so far from what you thought, and being so estranged from your own life. There’s something really haunting about it to me.”

Of The Guest’s end, she said, “I knew from the beginning the emotional temperature of the ending, how I wanted it to feel. I didn’t know what the specifics were, but I knew where I wanted the book to leave this character.”

That’s the thing about a book like this—the ending, maybe, isn’t so much a what-then as it is a state of mind. I’m content in the lingering unease, the creepy dissonance of an upbeat song playing on repeat.

But just ask Alex: Where did anyone get, in life, being content? Other people who read it have provocative ideas. So, herein, a host of theories.

All of Alex’s maneuverings would be impossible if she didn’t look the way she does: pretty, young, white, with nice clothes. (I didn’t feel any dread for Alex, reading the book. I was feeling dread for the people whom she was impacting, the people without power. Not the Simons or the Helens, but the caretaker at the house where she scratches the painting, and the nanny at the swim club whose charge she co-opts.) But that changes, in the end. She’s in the car accident with Jack, and I’m assuming that the airbags have gone off, and she’s dirty, and even though she’s changed in the bathroom, I think her hair is messy, and that stye in her eye is back. She’s probably got a bloody lip or something—because the way it’s set up, she so wants to be clean. She looks in the mirror, but it’s brushed metal, so she can’t really see what’s going on. When she finally sees Simon, she’s probably got a weird look on her face, because she’s Alex. I don’t think Simon is at all pleased that she’s standing on his lawn, but I don’t think he’s calling the cops, because I don’t think he wants to make a scene. Simon cares too much about appearances, but he’ll just get someone to get her out of there, and then she has nowhere else to go. I think that Alex is not long for the world and that, ultimately, no good comes of Dom. He’s probably hunting her down. —Miwa Messer, creator and host of Poured Over: The B&N Podcast; friend of VF

I think she has to be dead. And that’s a sociocultural read. People like her aren’t arrested. The only thing that stops them is death, right?—Tressie McMillan Cottom, VF contributor and author of Thick: And Other Essays

I read The Guest like I might take lines of cocaine: in small doses inhaled at frequent intervals. I found the protagonist so stressful that I could only assume her consciousness for five pages before taking a break to anxiously pace my room, only to mainline her antics again. So when the novel ended with Alex—after she’s maneuvered herself, over five days, into weekend party rentals, art-filled mansions, members-only beach clubs, and a hookup’s ex-girlfriend’s empty beach house—being stunned into immobility after finally making it to her now ex’s Labor Day party, I was less perplexed by the plot and more subsumed by the book’s overall mood, which felt orchestrated to mimic a drug rush (or even a shopping spree or the fulfillment of any desire) where the high of attainment meets the inevitable comedown, landing with a horrific thud—like someone cannonballing unknowingly into a water-drained pool. —Alexis Cheung, VF contributor and editorial director for Four One Nine and EADEM

Alex dies in the car crash with Jack and goes to Simon’s Labor Day party as a ghostly figure, desperate to resolve her unfinished business with him. Her unwavering belief that supersedes everything, even the finality of death, is that all will be resolved if she can just get to the party, back to Simon and the life she had before. Obsession has kept her alive during the novel’s desperate week, and it now tethers her to earth forever. She will now haunt the place where she last had some modicum of happiness and safety, as an eternal, unwanted guest. —Maggie Robe, marketing & events manager at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC; friend of VF

Perhaps because I spent my own weekend mostly abed, nursing an old dance injury in the soft glow of my own (doctor-prescribed and much more chill) painkiller haze, The Guest read like the most important thing I could possibly be doing with myself. I didn’t root for Alex; I didn’t root for anyone, truly, except maybe the beach dog. I did want to see how this ascetic, wandering beggar on her quest for spiritual illumination—a reunion with her wealthy boyfriend elevated to the divine plane—would meet her end. It didn’t matter what the end was exactly. I was entranced with the how, the getting there. So this bleary conclusion ruefully throws my own intentions in my face, because what exactly has happened? In my reading, I imagine it is Jack behind Alex, looking even worse off than she does post-car-accident and about to do the “bad thing” he warned about repeatedly—not to himself, but to her. Truly innocence lost. Sure, Dom had been the long-looming phantom, but Jack was right there, ready to tip over the edge. Then you take into consideration the murky, maybe-violent business with his ex-girlfriend, and well… Like its cinematic spiritual kin, Uncut Gems, this ride only ends as all things end: in death. —Arimeta Diop, editorial assistant

The odd thing about Alex is that she is hyperconfident about her ability to get away with things, but she almost always gets caught. The taillight, the painting, Dom’s money, et cetera, et cetera. The story of the book is in some ways the story of all her bad behavior catching up with her, in cumulative fashion. The schadenfreude of seeing her torture all these privileged people is matched only by the schadenfreude of seeing her get her due. So by that logic, my theory is not that she dies or gets killed, but rather that she is finally busted once and for all, whether by a hand on the shoulder from Dom or a pair of cuffs around her wrists. The gig is up, and the Hamptons are once again safe for people who can’t imagine why anyone would steal a shoe. —Michael Hogan, executive digital director

At first I felt a sense of shame come over me, like I just wasn’t getting it. What the fuck is happening here? So I reread the ending, starting from the (second, final) car accident, like a good English major. Then, like a bad English major, I put aside all the drowning/ghost (the Guest = the Ghost?) imagery and arrived at my own little not fully formed take: Alex is critically wounded with a neck injury, on a consciousness-losing number of pills, and looks completely messed up (grimy duffel, funky eye, sweat-stained dress, probably not smelling delish)—but not necessarily like she needs urgent medical attention. Like, no need to call an ambulance—just the cops, very discreetly, which Lori does, while everyone else less discreetly shuns her. (Is this capitalism responding to the mental health crises of the vulnerable or what?!) As the cops show up, with Simon spotting them behind her, she either succumbs to her injuries and self-medication or “goes crazy,” despite her assurances throughout the book that she never would. —Claire Howorth, executive editor

By Bess Levin

By Kase Wickman

By Charlotte Klein

The book begins with Alex nearly drowning, and ends with her actually drowning. When those little girls bump into her, she definitely doesn’t fall. But she did—into the pool. Now, the aquatic references are numerous and echo earlier underwater scenes. Everything she experiences makes more sense now: muffled voices, languid movements, a “sun like a sodium flash.” Why didn’t her limbs work at the end? Her body had gone limp. She used her last bit of power to slightly widen her smile at Simon—not too much, don’t want to look desperate while literally dying—hoping to lure him. —Mike Nizza, publisher of Bloomberg Opinion; friend of VF (and Claire’s husband)

I assumed that some type of security had come to collect Alex, since Simon was looking beyond her in the final scene. Also, she maybe collapsed from injuries sustained in the car accident. The last lines say she couldn’t move, and it seems like the end of the road for her could have been very literal and physical. Whatever happened, though, she loses and the Simons at the party win, in spite of their having to endure the mild discomfort of a strange character at their party. —Kenzie Bryant, staff writer

I think it’s safe to say that Alex has suffered head trauma significant enough that it’s physically apparent. There’s a moment after the accident where she can’t remember Jack’s name and refers to him as the boy. She never gives herself a clear look before going to the party, and the lack of acknowledgment from the people there makes it almost seem like she has walked into a random house and is imagining Simon, his guests, and the staff. —Fred Sahai, associate web producer

This entire book was my personal nightmare, and it’s my theory that it was quite literally all a dream. Have you ever had that nightmare where you try to call 911, only your phone won’t work? That’s all I could think of every time Alex tried to use her phone. The never-ending grift-and-drift from person to person, house to house, felt endless and horrifying, the way some bad dreams continue on and on. The ending, after her getting into the car crash, and arriving at the party, only to find everyone staring at her and that her legs won’t move? Don’t tell me that’s not a nightmare. —Kelly Butler, director of editorial operations

One of the best things about The Guest—and there are a lot of best things; this is the best book—is the heightened sense of wonder that accompanies Alex’s journey, even as her experience mostly consists of the most mundane Hamptons activities. This wide-eyed remove gives the whole text its nimble comedic rhythm that occasionally snowballs to become brutally hilarious. Make no mistake, this is a deliciously funny book, even more so on rereads. To put myself at risk of overanalyzing a great thing that really doesn’t need a cottage industry of hot-take-ery (if you haven’t read The Guest, stop reading this, and go read The Guest), here’s my piece about the end. It’s pretty simple. When Alex completes her odyssey, our hero’s Ithaca is just another dumb Hamptons party with bad canapés and art-adjacent hangers-on she thinks she recognizes. Instead of a melodramatic flourish, the book ends with Simon seeing Alex at his party, and she freezes up, having spent so much time imagining this very moment. But she doesn’t cause a scene. There’s something way more scandalous to talk about that happened at another Hamptons party, at another house; no need to let such a small thing like an unwanted party crasher distract away. It’s a wonderfully droll way to end a wickedly fun and flat-out brilliant book, and I could not have been more pleased.—Nate Freeman, staff writer

By Bess Levin

By Kase Wickman

By Charlotte Klein

The car crash reads as darkly humorous to me, as a wink and nod to the “disaster you can’t look away from” trope. The final scene finds Alex once again arriving at a party at which she doesn’t belong. However, this time, everything’s different. Simon doesn’t seem to recognize her and even seems to look beyond her (or through her, as if she no longer exists). To me, rather than imparting a ghost story ending, this scene places the reader in the shoes of a narrator at a crossroads, one at which she must finally take accountability and act as a realized person—“Now.” The cliff-hanger cleverly leaves the reader unmoored, as they have been throughout the entire novel, despite the book’s ending on a breaking point. The discourse around the ending reflects the feeling of liminality Cline creates. We are mere guests in Alex’s reality; we don’t belong there. —Jaylen Lopez, host of the Reading the Room podcast; friend of VF

The ending of The Guest forces the reader to use their imagination, which many people seem to dislike. The book is full of tension, and the countdown to the Labor Day party is perfectly crafted and drenched in a steamy summer pill haze, slow and simmering, which I find pretty romantic. Did the staff spot her and call the police? Did Simon merely have her dismissed from the party? Is she dead? Did Dom shoot her? Is this all a dream? WHO CARES? I read this book in two days because it was captivating. I respect a cliff-hanger and can make up my mind, and I don’t even have a particularly active imagination. I advise the angry mob of lit nerds to do the same. —Chris Black, cohost of the How Long Gone podcast, friend of VF

They all beached off. —Ken, probably

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