On Happy Endings

Just before Valentine’s Day, a few of our readers sent me a link to a news story about a new anthology of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides’ opinion about love stories and happy endings is, I think, emblematic about how most literary types approach the topic:

In the introduction to this remarkable collection, Jeffrey Eugenides warns readers that good love stories aren’t fluffy, happy-go-lucky affairs. Instead, they “depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart.”

“Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name,” writes Eugenides, the best-selling author of “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides.”

I looked up the introduction on Amazon.com (lor’ bless the Search Inside feature), and here are the quotes in context:

When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

This started me thinking about happy endings, and their bad reputation. It’s not so much that badly-written happy endings are shit on; it’s that happy endings in and of themselves are viewed as a literary faux pas—the equivalent of belching loudly at a cocktail party.

Near as I can tell, here are the most popular arguments for why happy endings, particularly in love stories, are inherently bad:

1. They’re unrealistic
2. They’re cheesy
3. They’re simplistic
4. They present an easy out for the author
5. They are inauthentic to the story
6. They’re formulaic

While these are all valid descriptions of all that’s wrong with a raging case of Terminus Sappynus (symptoms you may experience when confronted with this blight include mild nausea and an urge to read dystopian fiction just to cleanse your palate), these aren’t indictments of happy endings per se. These are symptoms of bad writing, and I can name a number of books with unhappy or bittersweet endings that have exactly these same problems.

Here’s a theory I have: people who view all happy endings with a jaundiced eye aren’t just reacting to the form in and of itself, they’re also reacting to their assumptions about the readers who enjoy and seek out stories with happy endings. After all, if these stories are mindless escapist pap, what does it say about the reader’s intellect if she genuinely loves them or, God forbid, defends them? Lingering in the back of the mind of people who consistently denigrate the romantic happy ending is the specter of the vacuous housewife in the puffypaint sweatshirt snarfing down bon-bons while clutching a be-Fabioed book. All sorts of class and gender issues are tangled up in our conception of love stories with happy endings.

Keep in mind I’m not defending happy endings across the board, either. I’ve read more than my fair share of schmaltzy, gag-inducing HEAs in my life, in which the previously-barren heroine is suddenly popping out babies because of the hero’s Super Sperm, or the deeply traumatized hero is magically fixed by the heroine’s sweetness and light (and Magic Hoo-Hoo), or everyone who’s not villainous gets to resolve their problems and it’s cake and ponies and superlative orgasms for everyone all the time (though not with the ponies, please), yay.

What I want when I read a book is a good ending. I want an ending that’s right for the book. I want a resolution that feels both logical and emotionally satisfying. If a romance novel hero has a fairly severe case of PTSD, I don’t expect him to be fixed by the end of 400 pages, though I want him to find an avenue for future healing and happiness—which is why the ending for Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale, while unconventional for a romance novel, is deeply touching and worked so well for me. If the protagonists have Issues but are, by and large, sane people, then an ending depicting them leading fulfilled, happy lives works well for me, too. This is why the “Where Are They Now?” summary in Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie is very satisfying for me. And if a book deals with madness, the Atlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth century and the atrocities people are willing to commit in the name of pride and commerce, like Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, then I pretty much expect an ending to be gut-wrenching and tragic. I’m even OK with books in which the author seems to be punishing the protagonist just so we can go along for the ride, like Jude the Obscure or Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This also doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for unhappy endings in romance novels. I’ll be honest here: I’m irrationally attached to my happy endings. When I finish a romance novel, I want the protagonists to be together, and I want an assurance that they’ll be reasonably happy together. It’s part of the pleasure and assurance of reading genre fiction. When I pick up a mystery novel, I want the mystery to be solved by the end. When I read a high fantasy novel, I want the world to be saved and the protagonists to complete their coming-of-age process. These very basic frameworks provide plenty of room to play with my expectations, to delight me with the unexpected, and to thoroughly fuck my emotions over. The trick is to bring everything together so that the denouement feels authentic instead of forced.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

EDITED TO ADD: So the central question that I’m pondering, and what I’m still trying to figure out is: Why is the happy ending viewed as something inferior in and of itself compared to a tragic ending, or a bittersweet ending? Why is a happy ending popularly viewed as a cop-out? It sometimes is, no question about that, but sometimes it isn’t, and it irritates me that people indiscriminately lump them all together. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, and I’d like your perspectives.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Yvonne says:

    If ‘Brokeback Mountain’ ended any other way, it wouldn’t be what it is. I tears your heart out and hands it to you in your own Risistol hat.
    But, if everything ended that way I probably wouldn’t read at all.

  2. 2
    NkB says:

    Has anyone seen Stranger than Fiction?  That movie does deal with the fact that in “serious” literary fiction, only unhappy endings seem to be taken seriously, and then basically explaining why that idea is total crap.  At the very end, Dustin Hoffman’s character, an English professor, tell Emma Thomson, the writer, that her happy ending wasn’t as good as tragic ending would have been and she basically tells him, “I don’t care.  I can’t take sad endings anymore.” 

    When I saw that, I was like, “Yayyyy, me either.”  If a book does demand a tragic ending, my imagination can fill in for that all on its own.

  3. 3
    NkB says:

    Has anyone seen Stranger than Fiction?  That movie does deal with the fact that in “serious” literary fiction, only unhappy endings seem to be taken seriously, and then basically explaining why that idea is total crap.  At the very end, Dustin Hoffman’s character, an English professor, tell Emma Thomson, the writer, that her happy ending wasn’t as good as tragic ending would have been and she basically tells him, “I don’t care.  I can’t take sad endings anymore.” 

    When I saw that, I was like, “Yayyyy, me either.”  If a book does demand a tragic ending, my imagination can fill in for that all on its own.

  4. 4
    Silver James says:

    I think all of us deep down want the HEA.  Speaking for myself, though I suspect many here will agree with me, I read romances to escape (read “live vicariously” as in the hot hunky male panting after me…erm, the heroine; yeah, that’s who I meant, the heroine) and even if I don’t get my HEA every time RL, the heroines in the books do. Now, that being said, if the HEA is too pat or smarmy, it makes me want to swig single malt scotch straight from the bottle. I want the ending to remain true to the story. A lazy writer who takes the easy way out is a sure way to make sure I never buy their books again – even if the next one they write is a blockbuster.

  5. 5
    Shaunee says:

    I think the movie Castaway is a perfect example of what Candy’s talking about.  I knew many people who disliked the ending, and because of that the movie as a whole, because it didn’t meet HEA expectations.  But had the ending catered solely to the HEA instead of sticking logically with the arc of the plot, I don’t think it would’ve been such a success, at least for me.

    I think Joss Whedon is brilliant at finding the balance between satisfying the more sentimental urges of his audience while consistently shaking up their expectations without making the work he produces seem in any way contrived.

  6. 6
    Sarah says:

    I read Nick Hornby’s new book, How To Be Good, a few months ago. After a 300 pages of marital strife, drama, fighting, passive-aggressiveness, etc, the book just sort of … ends. No one’s particularly happy. No one’s particularly miserable…

    I don’t demand a happy ending, but I do look for characters that grow or change, and an ending point that’s different from the starting point.

  7. 7
    Candy says:

    NkB: Actually, Stranger than Fiction goes straight to the question I’m attempting to figure out, i.e., why happy endings are viewed as somehow inferior to tragic endings. Why does somebody dying pointlessly seem to teach us something Big and Important About Life, more than somebody living a happy life ever could? Is it because of the emotional charge? Is it because our current cultural view of reality is, at its bedrock, dystopian, and happy endings are Pollyanna bullshit? None of these explanations quite satisfy me. And I’m not married to happy endings in all fiction, just my romance novels—and I read in a lot of different genres.

  8. 8
    lazaraspaste says:

    To paraphrase Peter S. Beagle via Schmendrick the Magician, the reason that there are no happy endings is because there are no endings. For some reason (I blame Plato) is that as a culture we believe that the most valid art is the art that is most like life, what is most “real”; and what is most real is apparently the tragic end of the spectrum of human experience. This, in my opinion, is an absurd way to judge the quality of art since reality is multifaceted and like Candy said, the ending should fit the book, the narrative structure of the story not reality. A tragic ending tacked onto a story is just as ridiculous as a HEA tacked onto the story.

    But if you notice, people regard comedy with a great deal of suspicion. It means you aren’t serious enough. Just look at the category divisions at the Oscars. When was the last time a movie with a happy ending won Best Picture or even got nominated? Yeah, can’t even think of one can you.

  9. 9
    rebyj says:

    The pre-menopausal, divorced woman in me says : “happy endings are fairy tales cuz life’s a bitch and then you die. “

    The male unit in the house says on this subject “A REAL MAN would only read books without HEA. HEA is for wusses!”

    Where do open endings fit into this discussion? to be continued…

  10. 10
    TracyS says:

    hmmmmmm Good question.

    When we are reading a book we are not imitating life (as the literary people want to say) because we are only getting a snapshot of the couple and their lives. Sure it ends happily because they are together. If their lives went on (beyond the book) it would not be happy, happy all day long.  Sometimes the hero would annoy the heroine because he keeps leaving his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor. But really, do we need to read about that to make it “authentic”?!  Do those overly dramatic literary endings any more realistic?  Do the majority of people really have lives like what happens in those books? I doubt it.

    When I read a book (or even watch a movie) I prefer the happy ending. I want to see things working out for everyone.  Real life is hard enough, why does my entertainment have to be much of the same?

  11. 11
    rebyj says:

    gah..hit submit too soon.

    I was gonna say , in all seriousness I like open endings cuz I’m a sequel whore. Gimme a character that I can follow from childhood to old age and read over the course of years and I’m a happy gal.

  12. 12
    TracyS says:

    ARGH, I need to proof read before I hit submit (I keep thinking I’m hitting, “review” even though that is no longer an option!)

    This: “Do those overly dramatic literary endings any more realistic?” should say ARE instead of DO.

    Also, to add to my last paragraph.  Even though I don’t prefer my books and movies to be so true to real life (read: depressing and boring LOL) that doesn’t mean I judge those that do like that. Why do those of us that like the happy endings always have to defend ourselves?  frustrating!

  13. 13
    StephB says:

    I’ve never understood the argument that happy endings are unrealistic. Sure, we all have unhappy and often even tragic endings to some of the stories in our lives, but we also have genuinely happy endings. Many of us do partner up with a person we love (whether it’s our first marriage or our fifth, and whether it lasts for a lifetime or just a few years). Sometimes we do get the promotion we’ve been fighting for, or the remissions in our illnesses. And sometimes, of course, we don’t. But why would only the times that we don’t “count” in realistic terms? I’d like to focus just as much on the good parts of life as on the bad ones.

  14. 14

    I have no wise answers about the happy-endings thing, so TOTALLY RANDOM ASIDE:

    “My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead”???

    All I can figure is that he’s alluding to the Catullus poem that’s a mock-elegy for his lover’s dead bird.  Which had me cracking up even before I got to the rest of that entry, because when we translated the poem in high school, my sister and I discovered that passer meant both “sparrow” and “flounder.”  As in, the fish.  So she and I, naturally, used that as a jumping-off point for the WORLD’S WORST translation ever: “Wear mourning clothes, oh highest toss of the dice, and whatever men there are that are endowed like Venus—my girl has killed her fish.”  Etc, etc, getting worse all the time, through to the end of the poem.

    But I suppose Catullus is Eugenides’ idea of a proper love story: jerked around by a bitch of a woman for poem after poem until he finally snaps and can’t take it anymore.  ‘Cause it’s deeper and more meaningful that way, doncha know.

  15. 15
    Teddypig says:

    Give me my “lucky eventualities” and what’s her bucket can go on aspiring to write the literary equivalent of General Hospital. I prefer my soaps on TV not on my book shelf.

  16. 16
    AgTigress says:

    How speciesist!  Why shouldn’t the ponies have orgasms too?

  17. 17
    papertiger says:

    Thank you Sarah for your typically well thought out post. I agree that a lot of the hating on HEA’s comes from the hating on romance novels in general, and all the sexism and classism involved in that general hate.

    On the other hand, there is something about genre fiction that’s formulaic, and by it’s very nature “art” is *not*. Good art simply flows from some place deep inside us that we can’t touch or control and it does what it wants, formula’s be damned! I think that’s Eugenides’ point about love, which comes from the same place.

    But it’s not an either/or thing – we’ve all read some really fantastic genre fiction, where the characters had so much life we felt as if we’d actually made some new friends by the end of the book. I think it’s more like a continuum and, while it may be difficult for genre fiction with it’s formulaic (and not in a bad way) nature to allow for the freedom of expression that “true art” needs, they’re certainly not mutually exclusive.

  18. 18
    Teddypig says:

    my girl has killed her fish

    Monty Python moment…
      I wonder where that fish has gone.
      You did love it so. You looked after it like a son.
      And it went wherever I did go.
      Is it in the cupboard?
      Yes! Yes! No!
      Wouldn’t you like to know? It was a lovely little fish.
      And it went wherever I did go.
      It’s behind the sofa!
      Where can that fish be?
      Have you thought of the drawers in the bureau?!
      Shh!
      It is a most elusive fish!
      And it went wherever I did go.
      Ooooh, fishy, fishy, fishy fish!
      A-fish, a-fish, a-fish, a-fishy, ooooh.
      Ooooh, fishy, fishy, fishy fish!
      That went wherever I did go.
      Look up his trunk!
      Yeah, it’s hidden in his trousers!

  19. 19
    Candy says:

    AgTigress: I was advocating against having orgasms with your ponies, because damn. And also, ew. But then I realized that the horse breeding industry requires quite a bit of horsie-jacking-off….

    And Marie: yes, I think the title is explicitly a reference to the poem by Catullus. Funny how the anthology wasn’t entitled “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,” eh?

    On to other things generally: It’s interesting to see the reasons why people read. I read mostly because my restless brain needs something to chew over and work on, otherwise it becomes as unmanageable as a hyperactive Border Collie; conversations and text work excellently for these purposes. I distract my internal narrator with an external narrator.

    People mention reading books with happy endings as an exercise in escapism, but can’t books with deeply unhappy endings (sometimes melodramatically so) be escapist as well? I’m thinking of tearjerking bestsellers like Love Story and just about everything by Nicholas Sparks. And where do trainwreck books like Flowers in the Attic fall in the spectrum of happy/unhappy vs. unrealist/realist?

  20. 20
    Jenna says:

    I’m working on a nonfiction project that’s giving me fits because I like happy endings and this person’s life did not end happily. It’s been a struggle: I’ve talked about it to my friends and my partner-in-project about how if it were fiction, there would have been forgiveness and redemption instead of what there was in life, which was anger and blame.

    It sucks, yo.

    Which, of course, has led me to wonder why it is I’m wired for happy endings and I suppose it all comes down to why I write at all: I want to make people happy by telling them a good story. Period.

    I don’t have an answer about why the happy ending is looked down upon: because they’re somehow perceived as “not real”, I suppose. But if it’s honest, shouldn’t that be the important thing?

    I also love Stranger Than Fiction: it’s an incredibly powerful movie, and I love its ending because it’s a celebration of the small things, the things that are so easy to miss but that make life worth living. My favorite exchange in the film is (paraphrasing):

    “Who spends the rest of their life eating pancakes?”

    “That depends on the kind of life being lived and the quality of the pancakes.”

    Personally? I’ll take the pancakes. Mm.

  21. 21

    Funny how the anthology wasn’t entitled “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,” eh?

    I WOULD BUY THAT IN A HEARTBEAT.

    And a copy for my sister.  And every other Latin geek I know who ever asked, “How come we don’t get to translate THAT poem in class?”

    (For those who never had the special glee of discovering that Catullus was more than just a whiny pawn of love: that line basically translates to “I will bugger and face-fuck you.”  He wrote good angry poetry, full of all the words you never get on your Latin vocab lists . . . .)

  22. 22

    Why is HEA viewed as inferior?

    Simple.

    Real life is more complex than that.

  23. 23
    RStewie says:

    I think the HEA is looked down on for the most part because it is associated with the Romance Novel.  And let’s face it, while the Romance Novel has come a long way, it has remained the perview of women.  And we all know that women and women’s interests have always been looked down upon: love, families, relationships, etc… 

    Also, I think it has a lot to do with historically important literature, such as Shakespeare’s writings or the plays of ancient Greece.  Notice that only the comedies have the HEA.  The rest are Tragedies.  So you either have a happy funny story with an HEA, or a sad, true to life tale, with no HEA.

    Is it any wonder we haven’t shaken this ideology, considering how deeply it’s rooted in both our literary history and the history of the female sex?

  24. 24
    Candy says:

    I have an analogy for what I want a happy ending to be based on a superlative chocolate-eating experience last night.

    I’m a super taster. My Powers of Taste are pretty acute across the board, but I’m especially sensitive to bitter. As I get older, my appreciation for bitterness increases, and I suspect this is directly in relation to desensitization as well. As a consequence, as of a couple of years ago, I have found milk chocolate to be almost unbearably sweet. I’ve given up on eating almost all forms of milk chocolate, but I haven’t made the switch to bittersweet because I really, really love the smoothness and complexity a dash of milk gives to a chocolate bar. I turned to dark chocolate ice-cream instead to get my chocolate fix.

    And then last night I decided, on a whim, to buy a Scharffen Berger milk chocolate bar. I hadn’t bothered to in the past because I thought they were a touch overpriced ($5 for 3 ounces? Aieee.) Man. It was soooo good. Not too sweet, while being mellow, complex and creamy. “Milk chocolate” seems synonymous with “cheap, crappy chocolate candy with almost no cocoa content, adulterated with artificial flavorings and way too much sugar” in the world of confectionery, so I was very pleased to find a brand that seemed to really, really get exactly what I wanted in terms of a milk chocolate bar.

    It’s the same thing with happy endings. I want something complex and satisfying without being saccharine; unfortunately, the market is flooded with crap. And while sometimes I’m in the mood for crappy chocolate, a lot of the time, I want something somewhat different but that’s referred to by the same name.

  25. 25
    GrowlyCub says:

    Would somebody fill me in on the unusual ending of Seize the Fire, please?

    I have never read Kinsale and the synopsis does not make it likely that I’ll read the book, but I have to admit I’m really curious about the ending now!

    Please email me at GrowlyCub @ yahoo.com

    As for a romance that deals with very serious life issues and still has a good HEA, I recommend Isabella Martens “Johanna”.  There was a little itty bit that I didn’t care for, which probably made the story more realistic, but disturbed my sense of what a hero gets or doesn’t get to do, but overall it’s a very intense 5 hanky read!

  26. 26
    Jessica D says:

    Maybe, as some upthread have suggested (sorry, down with the flu and not coherent enough to cite specifics), this is rooted in a certain Aristotelian…well, I don’t want to say “snobbery,” but…okay, snobbery. Maybe a catharsis from witnessing a negative experience is considered more pure because…er, because it comes seasoned with a dash of schadefreude?

  27. 27
    Candy says:

    Marie: man, if you’re ever in Portland, look me up and I’ll introduce you to my friend Kate, who’s a classics major at Reed College and will happily talk about how the Romans had orifice-specific verbs for fucking, all with violent overtones of rape, and just how many of those words she had to translate for her poetry classes.

    (I’d totally buy a love story anthology entitled “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,” too.)

    RStewie: There’s a bit of a chicken and egg story going on there, isn’t there? Are happy endings denigrated partly because of their strong association with romance novels, or are romance novels partly denigrated because of their happy endings?

    Regarding art imitating life, and how tragic endings are more realistic than happy endings because they mirror life more closely: I’d argue that any sort of ending is inherently unrealistic. Fiction in and of itself is unrealistic, because fiction deals with closure. The closure may be chaos, or it may be order. It may be happy, or unhappy. It could be realistic, surrealistic or fantastic, or anything in between. But there’s closure, even if it’s not satisfying to you personally.

    Fiction deals with snippets. Fiction also deals with abstractions. Attempting to cram life into text is unmanageable, and honestly, I don’t want it to. Fiction’s purpose is evocative. As such, I don’t find the “fiction is best when it’s realistic” argument particularly persuasive, especially when used in an attempt to explain why happy endings are frowned upon. We want our fiction to make sense and to resonate with our sense of what characters might do and what outcomes seem right in a given situation—whether the outcome is good or bad. Real life is a great deal more random and complicated than that; oftentimes we don’t even get to know the outcome.

  28. 28
    Candy says:

    My long-winded post above can be summarized thusly: Complete adherence to verisimilitude and real life makes for shitty fiction. If I ever wanted something that much more closely mirrors reality, I think I’ll reach for narrative non-fiction.

  29. 29
    GrowlyCub says:

    I tell people that accuse me of reading fiction that isn’t true to life that a) they need to read some romance novels to see that’s not true and b) that if I wanted the horrible reality that you can find in ‘literature’ I’d turn on the TV and watch the news!

    HEAs have to do with emotion, men don’t do emotion and since men are the ones who get to be the arbiters of what’s literature, naturally anything with a HEA can’t qualify.

    Sorry state of affairs.

  30. 30
    Charlene says:

    GrowlyCub, I have to disagree. It’s not that men don’t “do” emotion; it’s that they only consider some emotions to be emotions. Anger, aggression, distress, disgust, anything to do with violence: absolutely not an emotion under any circumstances, and if you disagree with them they’ll scream in rage to “correct” you. The only emotions they see as emotions are ones not connected to aggression, and wanting to read about *those* makes you crazy.

  31. 31

    Ooh, I actually have two theories about this.

    One comes from when I was in my teens and writing short stories for English lessons.  I always wrote sad endings, generally ones with a ‘twist’ (oh I was so proud of my twists—never did I expect to find them on magazines’ ‘do not want’ lists).

    I did this because it was easier to impress people with a nasty or sad ending than with a happy one.  And because a nasty or sad ending is, almost by default, more dramatic than a happy one.

    So, if you’re writing to impress, to shock, to make people go ‘oh no’, sad endings are the way to do it.

    (I still like to surprise people, but I like to do it in a more fun way than ‘and then they found out her twin sister had killed her!’)

    My other theory is based solely on advice given to Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea: ‘only a genius should try to write a sad ending’.

    I think people buy into the idea that sad endings are really difficult to write, whereas any sentimental idiot can write ‘and they all lived happily ever after’.

    This ends up leading to the belief that a sad ending is likely to be qualitatively better than a happy ending, because it’s more likely to have been written by a genius.

    There are some books that have to have sad endings.  I Capture the Castle’s sad ending is perfect for the storyline and completely consistent with the characters.  As is The Time Traveller’s Wife.  And possibly, Gone With the Wind.

    Bet Me, The Lord of the Rings and Howl’s Moving Castle, however, would be horrible worthless messes with a sad ending.  Not because Crusie, Tolkien and Wynne Jones aren’t brilliant writers, but because a sad ending wouldn’t fit with the story.

  32. 32
    Genevieve P. says:

    Why do sad endings have a better reputation than happy endings?

    I think it is for the same reason that comedy is thought of as less intellectual, less artistic, than drama.  Because we as a society are gluttons for self-punishment.

    There is a root feeling that nothing that is good for you can also be good.  Don’t like your veggies?  Tough, that’s where you get vitamins.  Isn’t that twinkie tasty?  Guess what, you’ll gain ten pounds just from looking at it. 

    In life, every indulgence comes with a punishment.  Thus, psychologically, maybe we try and add punishment and reward where there isn’t any.  Society then comes up with rules that add this punishment/and reward: reading a fun book with a happy ending is escapist and pleasurable, congratulations, you just rotted some of your brain.  Conversely, the sad, depressing, real-to-life book with the ambiguous ending was really hard to read, that must mean it made you smarter.

    In the end, it gets translated to the idea that sad and ambiguous endings are “better for you” than happy endings.  And those of us aware enough to see that it’s all an artificial construct are left rolling our eyes and eating our Twinkies as we read our favorite pulp genre novel.

  33. 33

    There seems to be an assumption floating through all this that happily endings aren’t worthwhile because they aren’t as complex as unhappy ones.  Why not?  Just because something ends on an up note doesn’t mean that the getting there is necessarily more simplistic, or that there’s only one kind of happy ending.

    Happy endings require a lot of work—perhaps more than the unhappy ones do.  Although I know many people have problems with the book, one of my favorite examples of this is Georgette Heyer’s “A Civil Contract.”  In the end, the hero and the heroine do wind up happy with one another.  But, boy oh boy, do they have to work to get there. And what they wind up with in the end isn’t rapturous joy; it’s a quiet (one might even say complex), appreciation of one another’s company.

    By the way, has anyone else noticed the parallels between Eugenides’ description of love and that of Andreas Capellanus and the other twelfth century theorists of Courtly Love?  Fascinating the way things come back around….

  34. 34
    rhino writer says:

    Speaking of Latin and the classics, I wonder how much of the bias against happy endings is carried over from ancient Greek drama. You know, hubris—the befalling sin of mankind. You get too big for your britches, something BAD happens, and either you learn a lesson or the audience does if you’re now dead. Sad endings are, in modern jargon, “teachable moments”, and negative reinforcement is flashier than positive reinforcement.

    I’m a sucker for happy endings, myself. I get much too upset when I read a book with a sad ending. It’s like I got kicked in the stomach. So sue me—I want things to go well.

  35. 35
    alia says:

    yes, and…

    in high school, trying to be a serious writer who wrote happy endings, i told people, “If the story doesn’t have a happy ending, it ended in the wrong place!”

    …and in some ways, I still believe that. Life doesn’t have an end, so the author gets to choose where they stop writing. And I think sad endings are cheating.

    But that’s me. :*)

  36. 36
    Meriam says:

    Imogen – I like what you say, and I like the books you read!

  37. 37
    Wry Hag says:

    YO, YVONNE!  ANOTHER BROKIE!  God knows what you said is true, though.  It will be a while before I can watch that luminously painful movie again (oxymoron intentional).  Couldn’t sob any more than I did without having a stroke.

    And therein lies the appeal of the HEA.  I often despise them for their simplistic lack of realism—life is indeed never quite so tidy, regardless of what eHarmony commercials would like us to believe—but I would have given my left nut, had I had one, to see Jack and Ennis of BbM have their HEA.

    That craving is certainly the result of how effectively the writer (or film maker) manages to engage the reader (or viewer).  If a storyline has some psycho-emotional depth and believability and the characters strike a sympathetic chord, we can’t seem to settle for less than their happiness.  They’ve striven and suffered and touched us with their striving and suffering, so we want them to be rewarded. Our sense of justice and rectitude demand it.

    But predictable HEA’s tacked on to silly, superficial stories populated by silly, superficial characters?  Stuff ‘em.

    I let a friend of mine read my black-sheep dystopian Samhain novel.  She loved it but was infuriated by the ending, regardless of its logic.  I was deeply flattered.  I’d engaged her enough to want I wanted from Brokeback Mountain.

  38. 38
    Masha says:

    Sometimes I wonder if the preference for sad endings isn’t a result of all the bad stories for kids.  I can remember reading all these stories in elementary school where two siblings were always bickering and then one of them was tragically hurt and the other realized how much s/he loved her/his sibling.  Suddenly the bickering was over, the tragic sibling healed, and the two of them never quarreled again.  I loathed those stories.  They made me feel like a bad person because no matter how hard I tried, I could not stop arguing with my siblings.  Then it got worse when one year not only did the class I was in get assigned a load of those to read, we were asked to write a story like that.  I failed that assignment miserably.  It brought on a deep disgust of happy endings that I only got over in college when I started reading romance novels regularly and realized that a realistic happy ending was possible in literature.
    Or maybe it has something to do with Victorian fiction?  I wasn’t an English major, but I seem to remember that Dickens and George Eliot had a thing for happy or at least happy-ish endings.  I’m not sure if I can think of any Victorian fiction that doesn’t end with some sort of attempt at an (usually moral) uplift.

  39. 39
    azteclady says:

    Susan Helene Gottfried sayeth,

    Why is HEA viewed as inferior?

    Simple.

    Real life is more complex than that.

    Funny, the questions raised here are also more complex than that answer.

    I think that part of the problem is the perception that, since the novel ends at a happy point, then all the future holds for the characters is the same level of happiness (hence the ‘ever after’ bit). Personally I’ve always thought of happy endings as the beginning of another story—the one with the underwear on the floor right next to the hamper, and the damp towels on the bathroom floor.

  40. 40
    Bibi says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that happy endings are looked down upon by the literary elite. Romance novels have a certain repuation, which is largely undeserved, or no longer relevant today.

    Happy endings in general, though? I’m not convinced. The comic novel, by definition, must have a happy ending. Dickens is known for his comic novels, and he’s pretty well respected. And I’ve taken honours courses specifically on the Dickensian comic novel. So… the academy isn’t ignoring it. George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray… they’ve all written comic novels. And their comic novels are really well respected. Vanity Fair? Come on.

    And not just comic novels, but there are really well respected love stories with happy endings. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen.

    A happy ending, structurally, sets up a “good society” at the end of the novel. In order for it to be a completely happy ending, things must end as they should, and in a satisfactory order. Everyone should be in their proper place, or it should be established that they are heading towards their proper place. From a critical perspective, this is an interesting thing for literary folk to analyse. What does the author posit as a “good society”? How to happy endings function? What do they suggest?

    There’s lots there for literary folk to discuss and ponder and find significance in. Any actual literature buff worth their salt recognises this.

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