Perhaps it’s none of my business to write about happy endings, since, technically speaking, my “Rather” novels don’t really end. A Rather Remarkable Homecoming is the fourth novel in a series about two main characters, an American girl called Penny Nichols and an English guy named Jeremy Laidley, who first came together in A Rather Lovely Inheritance; and each novel continues their story, so ultimately you don’t know for sure what’s right around the corner for them. However, since none of my books has a particularly unhappy ending—no Shakespearean pile of dead bodies, no suicides and no hero walking slowly toward the horizon after his well-ordered life and his unruly dreams have just shattered to pieces all around him—then maybe this qualifies me to discuss the notion that happy endings deserve a bit more respect.
For it seems to me that in the world of literature, there is a definite bias against happy endings as serious writing. At what point did the literary world invent this valuation of Tragedy over Comedy? Did the Elizabethans start the whole thing? Surely not. I can’t imagine that the Globe theatre manager ever said to Will Shakespeare, “Oi, wot’s this new play of yours? Does it have a happy ending? Sorry, we only do serious plays round here.”
And certainly Oscar Wilde was quite serious about social satire, even when his plays concluded with deliriously happy endings where love triumphs over all, and there’s more than one blissful couple in a symmetrical conclusion that could mean more than one wedding on the horizon.
Nowadays it’s not only the worlds of theatre and books that draw a line of demarcation between the happy and the sad ending; you see it with movies, too. Does the hero win or lose, live or die? In awards ceremonies a comedy is seldom taken as seriously as a somber film. But what do you do when a film makes you both laugh and cry? Generally the judgment comes down to that all-important ending.
I’m not convinced that a happy ending necessarily nullifies the importance and significance of a story. What if Emma Bovary hadn’t taken rat poison, but had instead managed to convince that rich rat of a lover who ruined her life to at least give her some seed money, so she could start up her own clothes boutique like Coco Chanel? Wouldn’t we still treasure the beauty of Flaubert’s prose, appreciate the astuteness of his observations, and admire his very modern structure of the novel?
And what if Anna Karenina had not thrown herself on the train tracks after that mama’s boy Count Vronsky let her down? What if Tolstoy decided to have mercy on Anna, and had instead found her a good lawyer whose brilliant cross-examination of her tyrannical husband resulted in awarding Anna custody of her beloved little boy? Would this variation on a Kramer-versus-Kramer ending mean that Tolstoy was no longer the brilliant insightful author of serious fiction, and the master of writing convincingly from nearly every character’s perspective? Mind you, I am not suggesting that a single word of Flaubert or Tolstoy should be altered. I only point out that these novels would still be literary gems regardless of whether they ended on a more hopeful note.
Somehow we’ve developed too black-and-white a litmus test for determining the stature and worth of a novel. Is it perhaps to satisfy a lingering Puritanical streak among us, whereby, with a sad ending, we seek to punish the hero for over-reaching, for daring to dream, for falling in love, or for just being human and succumbing to an inadvisable temptation? Does the deflating ending put the hero back in his place, to warn off those of us who are contemplating a challenge to the status quo? Or worse yet, is it simply to satisfy a bourgeois urge to assure ourselves that no matter how boring our own lives are, at least we aren’t as bad off as that character was in the end?
I keep hearing the argument that sad-ending stories are more like “real” life, and therefore more truthful. But here’s the thing. Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits. Every day is not awful. True, in life everybody dies in the end. That’s pretty bad. You might say that ultimately even the happy ending implicitly contains the bittersweet undertone that it won’t last forever.
Therefore I say, spare a thought for the novel with the happy ending, whose only crime is to stop the story at one of those moments in life when things are going better for the heroine than they did a few pages ago. It surely doesn’t mean that, after you close the book, the characters will remain cryogenically frozen in happiness, and never experience another day of sorrow, danger, dismay.
No, I suspect it only means that the author of the happy ending simply loves those characters—and humanity—so much so that she would prefer to leave them in the instance when they are in a more contented place, thus leading the rest of us to slip softly from the room and let the characters enjoy this private interlude of happiness. We are all surely grown-ups who know full well that, next winter, the snow will be “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling” in that Joycean way of burying the good and the bad alike, the happy and the sad.
And perhaps the author of happy-endings has in fact looked life and death full in the face, and wisely noted that—just as in “real” life—most human beings would rather spend their last minutes lingering in memories of the good times, even right up to that unavoidable moment when one’s own life story comes regrettably to a close, just like a book, with a soft, but final, thump.
C.A. Belmond is the author of four novels in the “Rather” series: “A Rather Lovely Inheritance”, “A Rather Curious Engagement”, “A Rather Charming Invitation” and the newest novel, “A Rather Remarkable Homecoming”. Readers can contact Belmond at her website, www.cabelmond.com.