I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid: Endless Questions

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it: I can’t seem to get I’m Thinking of Ending Things out of my mind. The depth of Jake the janitor’s loneliness is really getting to me. I can’t imagine living my life so isolated from everyone else. It sounds impossible. And now I’m thinking about it every time I look at another person. Are they all alone? What can I do to help them?

I also can’t stop thinking about the nonstop creation of illusion and fantasy throughout the book. Iain Reid really warps your perception of reality. It makes you wonder what is real. Is anything in life real? During one part of the book, I remember him discussing that memories are just stories. The only thing that is ever real is what you’re currently living. Each second is the only real thing you have. Everything else is a fantasy. 

Unsurprisingly, a book like this made me ask myself a lot of questions both about it and about my own life. I don’t have the answers to all of them, but I can *maybe* answer some of them… at least for myself. Of course this book is open to so many interpretations that each scene can be taken a million different ways. 

Back of the Book Description

Jake and his girlfriend are on a drive to visit his parents at their remote farm. After dinner at the family home, things begin to get worryingly strange. And when he leaves her stranded in a snowstorm at an abandoned high school later that night, what follows is a chilling exploration of psychological frailty and the limitations of reality.

Iain Reid’s intense, suspenseful debut novel will have readers’ nerves jangling. A series of tiny clues sprinkled through the relentlessly paced narrative culminate in a haunting twist on the final page.

Reminiscent of Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, Stephen King’s Misery and the novels of José Saramago, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an astonishing and highly original literary thriller that grabs you from the start—and never lets go.

Questions I Had While Reading I’m Thinking of Ending Things  (SPOILER ALERT)

  • What is the young woman thinking of ending? The title makes it sound like she wants to end her life. Her description makes it seem like she only wants to end her relationship with Jake. The in-between sections discuss suicide. Is the book covering multiple types of endings?
  • Why does the swing set look new? Why is it in the middle of nowhere? Why was this detail included?
  • Why does the caller keep calling the young woman? Why does the caller never speak when she answers? Why does the caller only leave cryptic voicemails?
  • Is it better to be alone or with someone?
  • Who is Jake’s brother? Is he real? Why does Jake feel the need to make up a brother? Does he blame his ‘brother’ for his failures in life?
  • Why do the farmers just leave the lambs where they are? Why did they not use the lambs for food?
  • Why does Reid include the maggot-filled pigs in his story? Why do they seem to have such a large impact on Jake?
  • Why are there scratches on the basement door?
  • Why does the girl in Dairy Queen feel scared for the young woman?
  • Who is Steph? Why does Jake say her name in the car while kissing the young woman? Why does she get a name and the young woman doesn’t?
  • Who is Ms. Veal? Why was she included in the story? Did she really poison the young woman’s mother?
  • Why does the janitor keep listening to ‘Hey, Good Lookin?,
  • Why is the young woman so scared of the janitor? Why does she feel like she has to fight him? Why does she think he is holding her captive?
  • Why did Jake choose such a brutal way to die? In the movie, he went outside and died of hypothermia. Why did he stab himself to death in the book?

What is the young woman thinking of ending? The title makes it sound like she wants to end her life. Her description makes it seem like she only wants to end her relationship with Jake. The in-between sections discuss suicide. Is the book covering multiple types of endings?

As we all find out in the end of the book, the young woman is just a figment of Jake the janitor’s imagination. She isn’t real in the same way that the rest of us are. But, in my opinion, she is real in a different, still important way. She is real to Jake. 

In his fantasy world, the young woman is simply thinking about ending her relationship with Jake. She doesn’t feel like they have good chemistry and, based on the book’s descriptions of their interactions, I would have to agree with her. Their relationship is awkward. It is almost always at odds with both of their personalities. 

I blame most of that awkwardness on Jake the janitor. He has a hard time imagining reasons why anyone would want to be with him. He cannot imagine a universe where someone would have loved him and remained in love with him. His fantasy world is a thought exercise meant to determine if he was always meant to spend his life alone and always meant to end his life by suicide. In the end, he and all of his fictitious characters agree that he should kill himself. 

Yet, I still think that I’m Thinking of Ending Things wasn’t just tackling the problem of suicide. I think in a lot of ways it covered the end of life in general. The first clue to this was in the extensive and horrible description of the end of the pigs life. It was dismal and gory and disgusting. They suffered for days before dying. The second clue was that Reid made it very apparent that Jake’s parents were getting closer to the end of their own lives. They were also both suffering from the ailments of old age. The conclusion the book seems to draw is that you will suffer until your life ends. It’s a somewhat horrible conclusion, but it seems extremely concrete when you look back at the book as a whole. It is bleak, but profound.

Why does the swing set look new? Why is it in the middle of nowhere? Why was this detail included?

When young Jake and the young woman are travelling to his parents’ farm, the young woman notices a brand new swing set next to a decrepit barn. She notices it in both the book and the movie. It is startlingly out of place and she comments on how it confuses her. What is the point in having a new swingset next to an old, abandoned building?

I’ll be honest with you, this detail still confuses me. It is such a small detail and yet it has enough meaning that it was included in both versions of this story. I also have differing takes on what it could *possibly* represent. 

On one hand, I think it might be the first clue that the young woman and Jake aren’t tangible. Their world isn’t real. They live in the fantasy world of a lonely old man’s decaying mind. The swing set is included as a sign that the real world and Jake’s fantasy are blurring together. Perhaps the barn had burned down ten years ago and since been replaced with a new building. Jake the janitor knows there is a new swing set there and includes it in his fictitious world without replacing the burnt down building. It adds an element of surrealism to the story, blurring the lines between the real and the unreal.

On the other hand, I think it might just be meant to add to the ever present dread of the story. The young woman is meant to come across as unsettled and confused. She is quite literally trapped inside the janitor’s mind. Everything is constantly changing and unusual. The first clue to this neverending anxiety and confusion is the oddly placed swing set. It is there just to add to her initial and ongoing sense of confusion. 

It’s really hard to say that either of those are the right interpretation in regards to the swingset. A nihilistic part of me always wants to insist that symbolism isn’t even real to begin with and everything in every book is meant to be taken literally. Of course, this book is absolutely littered with symbolism so that can’t be it. What do you think the swing represents? 

Why does the caller keep calling the young woman? Why does the caller never speak when she answers? Why does the caller only leave cryptic voicemails?

The caller scares the heck out of me, to be honest. Every time they call the young woman, I get a little bit nervous. It is deeply unsettling and terrifying to be constantly contacted by a person you can’t identify. Their cryptic messages come across as intimidating. It is obvious that whoever is calling is not mentally stable. Their message is as follows:

There’s only one question to resolve. I’m scared. I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid. The assumptions are right. I can feel my fear growing. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.

In the end, it ends up that the entire story was a figment of Jake’s imagination. The caller was his subconscious. What was the question he was struggling to answer? It was his endless debate as to whether he should commit suicide or not. 

However, I don’t really understand why the caller never said this to the young woman herself. The caller only left voicemails with this message and hung up whenever she actually answered. Perhaps part of Jake the janitor’s goal was to protect this specific persona (his fictitious girlfriend) from the more harmful sides of himself. He didn’t want to worry her. He felt some sort of tenderness for the section of the mind where she lived. I’m unsure. What do you think?

Is it better to be alone or with someone?

I’m Thinking of Ending Things very clearly presented the dangers of long term loneliness. Jake the janitor was plagued with mental instability. Many of the scenes depicted the damage being alone had done to his fragile mind. He is unable to socialize, hates himself, and cannot form healthy relationships. At the end of his life, he can barely communicate and spends more time in his fantasy world than in the real world. He’s unstable. 

But I think it also subtly presents the risks of being with someone else as well. The instability of relationships seem to be what Jake the janitor felt such a deep fear of. He was anxious in regards to how other people perceived him. Not knowing what was in their minds bothered him. And that’s a very real danger in relationships. You can never know the truth of another person. There will always be doubt. It’s hard to say it’s truly better to be with people than alone when you never know if they’re going to leave you. For people like Jake, the comfort of solitude, and the mental dangers presented with that, may be better than the risk of loving someone and losing them. 

Of course, for myself, I don’t necessarily want to be alone all the time. I would rather risk losing someone than never have them to begin with. Mankind is meant to be social. It’s written into us. Imagining going years without a real conversation sounds like a fate worse than death to me. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has a particular depth to it where it’s capable of making both fates sound scary. 

Who is Jake’s brother? Is he real? Why does Jake feel the need to make up a brother? Does he blame his ‘brother’ for his failures in life?

At the end of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it’s disclosed that the young woman’s story is just a figment of Jake the janitor’s imagination. He is imagining the perspective of a possible romantic interest that he hadn’t taken the risk with when he was younger. He imagines her growing bored with him and breaking up with him. Similarly, he imagines a better version of himself (young Jake) and a fictitious brother that possesses all of his negative traits. 

When the young woman asks young Jake about his brother, his brother possesses all of the same problems that Jake the janitor has. He is deeply antisocial, had a failed academic career, and followed young Jake around. At times, he even pretended to be young Jake, stealing and wearing his clothes. It is revealed that all of these characters are in the mind of Jake the janitor. The young woman is what Jake the janitor wishes he could have had, young Jake is a more ideal version of the janitor, and the brother represents all of the negative parts of Jake the janitor’s life. He blames his fictitious brother for his own shortcomings. 

In my opinion, Jake the janitor creates all of these various personas because of the trauma of loneliness. Being separated from everyone else in the world has had a horrible impact on his mental state. Jake the janitor is deeply depressed and suffers from mental illness. He may even have multiple personality disorders. He has split himself into these three characters (the young woman, young Jake, and the brother) in order to protect his own fragile mind. 

Why do the farmers just leave the lambs where they are? Why did they not use the lambs for food?

Coming from a farming community, it came across as really odd to me that the mother and father didn’t eat the lambs. It didn’t seem like they died because of disease or anything during the movie and the book didn’t go into a lot of detail. Jake just said they would probably burn the bodies. Maybe the lambs were just supposed to add to the creepiness of the story, but that feels reductive for a book where all of the wheels in my mind seem to be turning all at once. Is there some deeper meaning? If so, I can’t really figure it out.

Why does Reid include the maggot-filled pigs in his story? Why do they seem to have such a large impact on Jake?

The death of the pigs seemed to have a huge impact on young Jake and Jake the janitor. They both seemed extremely perturbed by it. From what I can tell, I would assume that the horror of the pigs’ deaths is a memory from childhood. The fear of dying in such a sickening way seems deeply ingrained in Jake. He is disgusted by it. 

And, of course, they become more than a horrible memory and instead seem to be the biggest symbol for Jake’s take on life. He seems to think that everyone lives and dies the same way as the pigs do: they suffer, full of maggots and pain, until they die. He believes he is quite literally a pig infested with maggots. He is constantly asking himself when his maggots will leave him. When will he finally get to die?

Why are there scratches on the basement door?

The movie and the book both feature oddly placed scratches on the basement door. In the book, they come across as less intimidating. Jake explains them away as scratches from when his family had a dog. In the movie, they’re placed too high up to be from a dog. This makes me believe that they’re meant to be something else even in the written version of the story. So why are they there?

Once again, I think they might just be to add to the overall ominous vibe of the story. Reid wanted to avoid everything coming across as simply awkward instead of scary so he added creepy details to the farm house. It might be nothing more than that.

But it could be more. I have a couple of theories. One of them is that I think that spending too long in the basement would have clued the young woman in to the fact that her very existence is fictional. She isn’t real. The scratches on the door and young Jake trying to dissuade her from entering the basement could be Jake the janitor trying to prevent that part of himself from learning the truth. None of this is real. He has never had a romantic relationship. He doesn’t want this persona to know these things and, instead, wants to watch the scene unfolding in his mind without reality interfering. 

I also think that the truth behind the basement door could be far darker than that. As I’ve mentioned previously, Jake has a bleak outlook on life. He believes that everyone is a maggot-filled pig waiting to die, particularly himself. What I haven’t really gotten into yet is how stunted and fractured his relationship with his parents came across. In both adaptations, his conversations with them are awkward and stunted. He cares for them deeply, but they come across as judgemental and dismissive. Considering how his life played out, spending their last years with them, it can be inferred that their relationship may broach codependency.

If you combine that with the fact that I believe Jake suffers from mental illness and has problems forming healthy relationships or even interacting with people, I think he may have been abused on behalf of his parents. Trauma at a young age can have drastic consequences for the future of a child. Dissociative Identity Disorder fractures, such as the one he seems to be suffering from, often only happen at a young age. It can be assumed that the initial trauma he endured was in the basement. Perhaps that it is also why he fears the boiler room at the school. He could be warning the young woman to avoid the basement because he has a deeply rooted fear of what happens in that room. 

Why does the girl in Dairy Queen feel scared for the young woman?

When young Jake and the young woman are travelling back home from visiting his parents, they stop at a Dairy Queen to get some lemonade. In the movie, they stop as well for ice cream. In both adaptations, they encounter three young girls.  I believe all of the girls are meant to resemble young women the janitor sees while working at the school; that’s why they seem familiar to the young woman.  Two of them are giggling and pointing at Jake. They seem cruel and beautiful, but harmless. One girl, however, has darker hair and comes across as scared for the young woman. In both adaptations, she gives the young woman a cryptic warning to be careful.

In my opinion, the girl isn’t really nervous on behalf of the young woman. She’s scared for Jake. The real Jake. She’s warning him of the dangers of exploring his mind in this way. Perhaps she’s a part of his subconscious, trying to prevent him from commiting suicide. 

Who is Steph? Why does Jake say her name in the car while kissing the young woman? Why does she get a name and the young woman doesn’t?

Jake mentioning Steph in passing particularly confuses me. I can’t imagine him ever having experienced a romantic relationship with a woman so it’s hard for me to assume that she was a previous girlfriend in Jake’s real world. Perhaps she was, but it doesn’t sit right with me. He doesn’t come across as someone with any romantic experience. 

However, I do firmly believe that Steph is someone real from Jake’s life. Most of this feeling is due to the fact that, unlike the young woman, Steph is given a name. It could just be that he had a crush on someone named Steph and never did anything about it. 

Who is Ms. Veal? Why was she included in the story? Did she really poison the young woman’s mother?

The inclusion of Ms. Veal confuses me. Is she real or is she something Jake the janitor added to the young woman’s story to spice up his fantasy world? He was, after all, writing all of this down in a notebook. She could have just been an element to the story.

Or vice versa she was a real person that Jake the janitor interacted with during his lifetime. As I mentioned before, one of my theories I developed while reading this book is that Jake was abused at a young age. Perhaps instead of his parents being the abuser, Ms. Veal was. She had an ominous air about her. 

However, I don’t think she really poisoned anyone. That seems too far even for this book. In either theory, the perception of Ms. Veal was through the eyes of a child. Whether it was the young woman or the real Jake, they probably just thought that she poisoned their mother because of the coincidence of their mother getting sick after Ms. Veal’s visit. 

All in all, I think this is one of the more confusing details in the book. Ms. Veal is only mentioned for such a short period of time and only has negative traits. I don’t really understand her. I might read I’m Thinking of Ending Things again just to see if I can comprehend all of these small details. It seems like she is important. I just don’t understand how important. What do you think?

Why does the janitor keep listening to ‘Hey, Good Lookin?’

I don’t think that the song choice means anything in particular. I think listening to the same song on repeat was just another attempt on Jake’s part to drown out reality. I sometimes listen to the same song over and over again when I’m upset. It may just be one of his coping mechanisms. Of course, it may be something more than that. Maybe the lyrics have some deep meaning that I’m missing.

Why is the young woman so scared of the janitor? Why does she feel like she has to fight him? Why does she think he is holding her captive?

There is a very frantic energy to the end of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Part of that is probably due to the fact that all of Jake the janitor’s various personas are colliding. He is forcing them into agreement that he should commit suicide. However, because of how real these various personas are, I think that the young woman’s fear is a very real thing. She is legitimately frightened and confused by everything going on. Jake has kept her mostly in the shadows about the reality of her situation. She feels like she has to fight him because she doesn’t understand that he is her. She feels like he is holding her captive because she is quite literally trapped in his mind. 

Why did Jake choose such a brutal way to die? In the movie, he went outside and died of hypothermia. Why did he stab himself to death in the book?

I really don’t know. The manner in which Jake committed suicide is horrible, even for suicide. However, there is some poetry that he left himself somewhere where he would be easy to find. Everyone would know that he killed himself. Perhaps his choice of location, at least, was due to the fact that he wanted people to interact with him in death if they could never do so during his life. It’s hard to understand why Jake the janitor did this in such a brutal way.