Thursday, January 3, 2013
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.