Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Endings

I stole the inspiration for this post from this article here, all about the author's favourite happy endings. As so often happens, I started contemplating my own favourite happy endings in literature, thinking I'd lazily compile a list and post it. I rapidly discovered however, that most of the books on my shelves (and those that I've read recently) don't end happily. The only two titles I could come up with were The Time Traveller's Wife (which, although it makes me cry every time I read it, has a sweetener at the end) and Reunion by Fred Uhlman (a book about terrible things but with the most effective ending I've come across - not conventionally 'happy' per se, but changes the entire book).

I haven't read most of the books included in the aforementioned article, so I can't really say whether it is the case that I don't tend to read books with happy endings, or that my definition of a happy ending does not include an author promenading some hitherto unfortunate character's future possibilities for a happy life in a vaguely hopeful way at the end of a novel, or simply that the conventional happy endings - true love, another chance at life, freedom - now belong primarily to the domain of films rather than books. Take Trainspotting, for example. That novel is, without doubt, the single most sordidly depressing book I have ever come across, yet when it was made into a film the characters morphed into funny, likeable mischief makers and the film as a whole was extraordinarily optimistic and forgiving.

Realistically, I suspect that a happy ending is harder to pull off than a slightly grittier, imperfect ending. Nobody really believes in Prince Charming anymore; he's a cliche, as are the rest of the traditional happy endings with which everybody is acquainted. Authors face the problem of making a story credible and consistent while avoiding the deathly pitfalls of being steroeptypical and trite, and the easiest way to do that is to condemn characters to an unavoidable reality rather than allow them the golden dream. That's not to say that contemporary fiction is generally pessimistic, quite the opposite. And even if a story does end badly or pessimistically, the conclusion can still be striking. It's more that the art of ending a novel powerfully and effectively seems to be disappearing from modern literature.


Danielle said...

Certainly with the classics unhappy endings are the norm!! Out of the list I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, and P&P--both good books with happy endings (have seen Cold Comfort Farm--quirky but good movie!). Of my recent reads Jane Eyre has a happy ending. I like happy, tidy endings but they don't happen every time that's for sure! What I hate are endings that are vague--the sorts that are fill in the blank kinds! I think I prefer to know one way or another--and that goes for films, too!

BookGirl said...

One of the most frequent (and heated) discussions of my book groups is, is there no such thing as a happy ending in serious literature? We've read some amazing novels, thought-provoking and all that but the majority of them are not very "happy" in the end. We don't expect happy ever after endings all the time but something a bit more hopeful every once in a while would be nice. I will have to take them that article for next year's nominations :)

Dorothy W. said...

There are a lot of unhappy endings in classics, but a lot of happy endings too -- Austen always ends happily and Eliot often does, and Dickens, right? I think of endings in contemporary fiction as often being sort of in between -- maybe indeterminate or only slightly optimistic.

Nyssaneala said...

I believe it is becoming more common for writers to have endings that aren't necessarily happy (not everything is resolved in a neat, tidy way), but the main character(s) has changed and is heading onto a new path in life. There is hope for the future, even if it has not quite happened yet.