Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jane Austen, Queen of the Happy Ending

Jane Austen never, except in fun, entertained the romantic notion that the pleasure of the reader or the gravity of the novel could be increased by providing a spuriously disastrous conclusion, such as Charlotte Bronte gave her novel Villette...Jane Austen....knows what the angels know - that happiness is more worthy of note than unhappiness. And since she has it in her novelist's power to make a second world, she chooses, with golden rationality, to make it a happy world, and, with sparkling invention, an absorbing one. Of course, she presupposes a sensible reader - I mean one who knows enough of happiness to prefer it to other states.

~ Eva Brann, "The Perfections of Jane Austen," in A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen

I've noticed that the happy ending seems to be somewhat looked down upon these days. It's okay for fluffy romances where you pretty much know the ending before you start the book, but for "serious" fiction it's considered unsophisticated and unrealistic. At least that's the impression I've received. That's why I felt like cheering the first time I read the quote above. It's so nice for those of us who champion the happy ending to have Jane Austen on our side, for no one can argue with her success, popularity - or her literary merit. What's more, I think her books disprove the most common objection to happy endings - that they're "unrealistic." That things don't turn out that way in real life; that we don't all live happily ever after. But Jane Austen's novels are excellent demonstrations of what I like to call the realistically happy ending.

This is how I see it: In the course of any "serious" novel, the characters are going to go through some difficult circumstances, which are bound to leave some kind of a mark on them. And the intelligent reader knows well enough that they're bound to face more obstacles in the future. The happiness comes from the characters overcoming the circumstances that formed the plot of the book, but we're sensible enough to know that doesn't mean they'll never have any trouble again. This may surprise you, but I've always thought The Sound of Music had a bittersweet ending. The von Trapps make their escape, but at the expense of leaving behind their home, their friends and everything they've ever known. It's a happy ending in that they have each other, their music and their freedom, but we're well aware that more challenges lie ahead for them on the other side of the mountains.

So it is with Jane Austen. Elizabeth and Darcy are happily married, yes, but they're not going to forget the events that led up to their marriage anytime soon - and don't forget Lizzy now has Lady Catherine for an aunt-in-law (with Mr. Collins hovering around, and the additional complication of his wife being Lizzy's good friend), Wickham for a brother-in-law and is still very much related to Mrs. Bennet, while Jane will have Bingley's sisters for her in-laws. Emma and Mr. Knightley may rejoice in the "perfect happiness of the[ir] union," but they've got plenty of challenges - living with Emma's invalid father and managing two estates, not to mention still having the Eltons for neighbors, and one could hardly imagine that Miss Bates will not relay to them every particular of Frank and Jane's housekeeping and travels as she receives each letter.

Since Jane Austen's novels are largely centered about relationships between people, and that's what the conflict arises from, her happy endings consist in her protagonists establishing a satisfying relationship with the person who means the most to them. They'll still have many others to contend with, but now they can face their problems together. I really don't see what is contrived or unrealistic about that.

So what do you think? Do you believe a happy ending can be authentic? What are some of your favorite examples of realistic happy endings?


Melissa Marsh said...

Oh, I completely agree that happy endings can be authentic. In our culture, it's not "popular" to be happy. Does that make sense? We tend to praise the books with the tragic endings much more than those with the happy endings. Same with movies. We thrive on angst and the "tortured soul" is much more interesting than the "happy soul."

Give me happy endings any day.

Here's a realistic and true happy ending: Louie Zamperini, the subject of the book "Unbroken" by Lauren Hillenbrand, went through unbelievable torture, starvation, etc., from his time as a Japanese POW. He survived and went home. But then his demons took hold and drug him down a path of destruction and revenge. When he found God, He changed Louie's life - and he had his happy ending.

jtwebster books said...

I so agree with you. A happy ending is the best ending. But it doesn't have to be sickly sweet, or unrealistic. As you say, life will continue with its own problems in the future. I like the way you use Jane Austen to illustrate this. Would Pemberton make up for having Lady De Burgh as a relative?

Have you read the book you quoted from? I dip into it from time to time - it's interesting.

Elisabeth said...

Melissa - I completely agree with you. That's why I loved the last line of the Eva Brann quote about the sensible reader preferring happiness.

jtwebster - I don't think I've read it from cover to cover yet, but I have read a lot of the different chapters. You're right, there's a lot of interesting stuff in there.

I Just Know Everything said...

In actuality, there is no such thing as a "happy ending" in real life. Let's face it, we will all suffer the same end result (though I suppose we could argue that the events leading up to this result may be more tragic for some that for others.) We should assume that characters in books and stories will inevitably suffer the same end result. The difference between real life and fiction is that in fiction, an author can choose to leave a character in a frozen point in time - we'll call it the "end". In life there are happy moments. In life there are tragic moments. Some authors may choose to "end" stories with a happy moment, and I do not feel that doing such makes a story any better or worse than one that "ends" with a tragic moment. So let mainstream academia critisize sentimentality in fiction as being unrealistic. I'll continue to enjoy sentimental and tragic endings alike.

Elisabeth said...

The end of a story is where the reader and fictional characters part company - if the author has done their job well, the characters will seem real enough to the reader that they'll be able to visualize some of their imaginary future life. My argument is that the kind of ending that foretells nothing but more tragedy is hardly a fulfilling experience for the reader. Yes, certain tragic endings have their place, but I just think to follow a troubled character all the way through a book, only to find they're no better off in the end than they were before (or even worse off) isn't as satisfying.

Marian said...

Hm, very interesting post!

Concerning the quote, I would disagree with Brann's comment on Villette. I've read the book, and I think the ending was "disastrous" in order to make a point. Not only that, but Charlotte Bronte did have a very tragic life herself, so I don't think the ending of Villette is strictly due to morbidity, or for dramatic effect.

I like realistic endings, be they "happy" or "sad"...generally my favourite endings are bittersweet. The last few chapters of The Lord of the Rings are some of the saddest I've ever read, and yet I think the ending could definitely be labeled "happy". It's a bit of a broad term, though. Like the P&P example you mentioned, I don't know if I could live happily ever after with Lady Catherine as an aunt-in-law. ;)

The question is, what type of ending makes sense for the story? IMHO, a book shouldn't have a tragic/happy ending just for the sake of it. Both tragic and happy endings, if misapplied, can make a book lose its gravity.

Elisabeth said...

Marian - it's been quite a while since I read Villette, so I don't remember all the details, but if there was a point to the implied tragic ending I must have missed it. :) It seemed almost a take-your-pick ending, as if she knew some readers wouldn't like the tragic one. But I recall thinking that the tragic option was the worst kind of ending - slapped on at the last minute when you'd been led to expect it would end well. I said before, I didn't start out to argue against tragic endings in general; I was talking about the overdone trend towards them nowadays. And I agree with you about bittersweet endings - I think they can be even more emotional if the emotions are a little mixed.

Margo Berendsen said...

Oh, I just love this post! Love it! Big fan of Jane Austen and yay that her books have happy endings and are stil considered literary masterpieces and are STILL bestsellers.

My books will ALWAYS have happy endings, though I'll put my characters through misery to reach them.

Abby Rogers said...

I absolutely agree! A writer friend of mine has a dislike for happy endings, but I think it's just because she considers them to be "trite". I think that a (well-crafted) happy ending, like those found in Jane Austen novels, is perfectly wonderful. Sometimes authors tie too much up with a bow, but the majority do a better job. And what is satisfying about a tragic ending?