There are in my view both real sequels and quasi sequels. A real sequel is when the author of a book, say, Margaret Mitchell, or someone else writes a novel about what happened to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler after Gone With the Wind. A quasi sequel is really a repeat appearance, as when Conan Doyle or J. K. Rowling writes another Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter fiction, about the hero’s further, new adventures.
Both phenomena come about when a beloved protagonist elicits a repeat performance of some kind. Personally, I am no great fan of these procedures. But sequels of either kind have been wildly successful, and are in fact a tried old stratagem, as the careers of, for example, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas pere compellingly illustrate.
All very understandable, given the hard world in which fiction writers operate, although the same phenomenon prevails in spades at the movies and, to some extent, even in the theater, just ask Neil Simon. And now there is a stage version of Harry Potter in the planning. But isn’t a novel, say, a complete entity, self-sufficiently featuring a beginning, middle and end, and in no need of further elaboration any more than a lyric poem does. Although there is such a thing as a sonnet sequence—just ask William Shakespeare.
What is it exactly that hates endings and gives rise to sequels? First of all, it is popularity. Why wouldn’t the cherished scoundrel Vautrin figure in several Balzac novels? Why shouldn’t beloved Harry Potter make more millions for J. K. Rowling? Why shouldn’t there have been a series of ever longer novels about the three beloved musketeers—really four, counting d’Artagnan—and their descendants?
Popularity, i.e., sales, have much to answer for, as well as the fact that it is safer to bring back a well-regarded fictional hero than to invent a new one. But something else also plays a part here: human inquisitiveness. Just as we are curious to know more about friends, enemies, celebrities, we are curious about what happened to fictitious characters after, say, they married and “lived happily ever after.” Tolstoy to the contrary, happy families are not all alike, if for no other reason than that, in real life, they seldom remain blissful forever. If, God forbid, there were a sequel to War and Peace, would everything be hunky-dory for Pierre and Natasha?
And to think that even Goethe saw fit to write a sequel to the so very satisfactorily completed Faust part one with a Faust part two. And, as we all know, Shakespeare brought back the rogue Falstaff in a sequel, The Merry Wives of Windsor, whether or not, as reputed, at Queen Elizabeth’s request, hardly matters. (The groundlings’ request, more likely.) Success plus curiosity begets sequels.
But there is a further trigger for sequels: our fear of mortality, our conscious or unconscious wish to live forever. Somehow or other, the persistence through sequels of a fictitious character translates into a sense of our own not coming to an end. I fully believe that young persons reading about Huck Finn’s striking out for the Western Territories suggests to them that he is immortal, and that they themselves will be around reading about his further adventures someday, somewhere.
To be sure, there are readers who don’t want sequels of contemporary novels. They are the ones aware of the backlog of great classics they haven’t read yet and want to catch up with more Dickens or Dostoevsky or D. H. Lawrence. They are very happy that, for instance, Robert Graves stopped at two Emperor Claudius novels: one sequel was quite enough. But young readers especially crave sequels, and thus for example Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking novels have had sequels upon sequels in print, film and television series. For young German readers, there were (are?) the Wild West novels of Karl May that kept bringing back the great white hunter Old Shatterhand and his Indian chief friend, Winnetu. They can be thought of as very persistent, very numerous sequels.
And sequels persist. They may have not much more in common than an imaginary town or region, as the audiences of Horton Foote or readers of William Faulkner well know. It could be argued that a Steinbeck locale is at least as real as his characters, and that geography itself can provide sequels. In any case, continuum is a great human desideratum, and sequels of whatever kind cater to it.
Speaking for myself, I’d be perfectly happy if there were no more sequels, though I can also live with them. Among sequels I now include also revised second editions of previously published books. Scholarly works, dictionaries, encyclopedias keep coming out in new, more up-to-date, or merely expanded, improved editions, and such reissues can be infuriating.
What am I to do if I spent a tidy sum on, say, a history of the printed book, or of Shakespeare stagings, or of the Paris underworld through the ages, and out comes a new, presumably improved edition a few years later? Throw out the previous version, even though it was a first edition, and maybe had a finer binding, wider margins, better paper and larger print? Do I simply ignore the revised version and merely scowl at the one on my shelf as a sort of intellectual coitus interruptus?
I count myself lucky for not being a completist, and can ignore such sequels as the complete Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott. Yet I cannot but admire anyone who has read them all. Then again, there was the fellow who, seeking employment in a college English department, spouted excerpts from the least known ones among them, thereby conveying the impression that he knew the whole lot intimately from alpha to omega--without even having glanced at the rest.
And then there is that most pernicious kind of sequel, as when a major author revises a lengthy fiction of his own and both versions are considered important enough for us, if we are serious academics, to have to read hundreds of pages in quasi duplicate. This is very much the case of Moerike’s Maler Nolten. Or what about Great Expectations, for which Dickens first had a less happy ending, but at Bulwer-Lytton’s urging came up with a happy one? We have here a work that is its own sequel, and are we now, as teachers, responsible for both versions?
Nor let us forget that late nineteenth-century novels tended to come out on the installment plan, several chapters at a time over a long period, earning payment for each segment, and so prompting the author to make his novels doorstoppers. Robert Graves memorably came up with a considerably shortened version of one of the Dickens novels (David Copperfield, as I recall)) just by cutting the word “little” each time it occurred.
The matter of sequels makes one wonder: Is shorter better? Would Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, be better if it were less literally magnum? It is really a series of novels, each a sequel of the preceding and sizable in itself, with quite a parade of more or less ancillary characters. Yet these sequels with their large casts are in order, for we thus get a panorama of how personalities evolve and relationships change, and how memory in pursuit of the past rounds out our brief term on earth. Better than perhaps anyone else, Proust has validated the sequel.
But this does not mean that we want sequels from lesser writers. Do we need a tetralogy from Jeffrey Eugenides? Do we want Erica Jong to dredge up her checkered past for us in ever more novelistic searches? How many times do we wish Margaret Attwood to reinvent herself? Isn’t even late Hemingway an unnecessary sequel to earlier Hemingway? To say nothing of Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, of which even one may be de trop. How many epigones will grind out posthumous James Bond tomes? How often did Updike have to go Rabbiting without a strong case of sequelitis? But at least his are bona fide, thought-through sequels. We have too many writers nowadays who don’t even know that they are writing sequels.