Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy Endings

Elizabeth Zelvin

If Jane Austen didn’t invent the happy ending in novels, she certainly institutionalized it. Back in the days when I was a college English major, I read Samuel Richardson’s 1748 masterpiece, Clarissa. This epistolary novel told a typical pre-Austen story, in which the virtuous Clarissa is pursued by the rake Lovelace through 1,500 pages. He finally has his way with her, by the expedient of drugging and raping her. After that, of course, he can’t marry her because she is ruined. Unless you think the heroine dying and going to heaven (God being more forgiving than 18th-century English society) is a happy ending, Clarissa hasn’t got one.

I still have my college copy of Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve recently read my way through all of Austen’s major works. In every single one of them, boy gets girl in the end. I’m a sucker for happy endings, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m willing to read on through any number of frustrations, obstacles, and misunderstandings, as long as I’m secure in the knowledge that all will be overcome and the protagonist or hero and heroine live happily ever after by the final page. I prefer a happy ending even when it strains credulity. Take my friend and fellow mystery writer Annamaria Alfieri’s latest book, Invisible Country. Alfieri’s territory is historical South America. This one takes place in 19th-century Paraguay, where a disastrous war against the tiny country’s three much bigger neighbors left 90 percent of the male population between the ages of 8 and 80 dead. A happy ending for more than half a dozen likeable major characters was unlikely, but I was glad to get it.

Even when an unhappy outcome is essential to the integrity of the story, I find it painful and difficult to accept. I may even fantasize a different ending, longing to reverse the inevitable—much like finishing an interrupted nightmare by thinking through a happier conclusion between waking and opening my eyes. One good example occurs in Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay, the third in the highly praised Hunger Games trilogy. These dystopian Young Adult novels are a terrific read. Beyond the speculative premise and the dramatic events, these are character-driven stories. Near the end of Mockingjay, the triumph of the good guys is about to be betrayed and overturned. Katniss, the heroine, is exhausted and wants only to throw down her weapons and go home. The author creates the only possible unexpected twist that could rekindle Katniss’s outrage enough to motivate her to act. I acknowledge the inevitability of this particular tragedy—but I hated it.

Stephen King’s 11/23/63, a brilliant piece of speculative fiction involving time travel and the Kennedy assassination, is another recent read that ended the way it had to rather than the way Jane Austen would have ended it. I was kind of braced for it, because I’d read a reader review in which the reviewer stated the in the end, the character “does the right thing.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I expected is was going to harrow rather than soothe my feelings. As a writer who appreciates craft, I could see how powerful King’s ending was and how in keeping with his most important theme. But in my heart, I confess I would have preferred a happily ever after.


Sheila Connolly said...

Like you, I tend to cheer for the boy-gets-girl (or vice versa) happy ending, but I begin to wonder if there is a new paradigm for the rising generation. Among my daughter's high school friends, now nearing ten years out, not one is married or even in a serious relationship. They're all smart, ambitious, educated and attractive, so does this mean they think their lives are complete without a man? Romance novels still sell well--but to an older demographic.

Is the HEA ending a sociological artifact?

Sandra Parshall said...

I think most of today's 20-something women are focused on the same things the young men are: building their careers and creating a secure future for themselves. They're not waiting for a man to come along and sweep them off to a little house behind a picket fence. They know women loose traction, or completely stall, in their careers when they take time off to have babies. They know that half of all marriages end in divorce, so they might as well be prepared to take care of themselves. Jane Austen seems terribly dated to me in the modern world.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

You've both taken the discussion in a direction that, believe it or not, I didn't think of, ie considering the happy ending as a feminist issue. It's not because the protagonists mate (or any assumptions about the distribution of labor and gender roles) that I find that kind of ending satisfying. It's because they're happy!

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, they're happy, Liz, but why? Because the heroine has found the right man to take care of her and "make" her happy (as if anyone can be totally responsible for someone else's happiness). Being taken care of was the big issue for women in the past, not finding true love. If they got both, great. But above all else, women had to find men who would marry them, give them homes, and provide for them. Usually they had only a narrow window of time to attract a husband -- their late teens and early twenties. After that they were spinsters, still living off their parents,possessing no marketable skills beyond, possibly,those of a nanny or governess to other people's children.

Although Edith Wharton's novels were written later than Austen's, and most were set in the US rather than Britain, the social situation for women had not changed a bit. Young women were still desperate to get married. Only the lowest class of women worked for a living, making hats or whatever, and their earnings were barely enough to save them from starvation. Wharton's The House of Mirth provides a stark, honest look at the life and prospects of a woman who has not found a husband and has not been left an inheritance to live on. It's scary. It's downright terrifying, actually. And utterly different from the view Austen provides.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My intention was to take a much broader view of the happy ending--not only stories in which boy gets girl, but in which the characters you care about don't die and those in which the protagonist's quest of any kind doesn't end in disappointment and loss. Not that I'm not happy to see my post spark discussion of any kind. :)

Katreader said...

Very interesting. I too, like happy endings and hate when tragic things happen (especially to nonhuman animals). As to the boy gets girl (or vice versa) I enjoy those as well. I'll be 45 this year, single never married, and I'm fine with that. I've never wanted children and now even if I met "Mr. Right" I doubt I'd want to marry him. I wouldn't want to risk my credit-plus he'd need his own house. I've lived alone (well, the only human) since 1989-I don't think I could live with someone. At any rate, I guess I'm saying that while I don't consider "getting a man" that important, I enjoy reading about couples that do manage to get together and am happy for them. Of course, most of the romances I read are paranormal...wonder what that says about me?!? lol. But I do enjoy the hint of romance in many cozy mystery series, paranormal or not!