Monday, April 27, 2009

I'll See Your Happy Ending and Raise You a Downer

happy ending, the--an outcome of a story or novel in which one of more of the lead characters is successful in achieving a goal; a payoff or result of a narrative in which the behavior of the protagonist leads the reader to feel optimistic; characters getting what they want without having to overpay.

One could almost paraphrase Tolstoy with the observation that happy endings are all alike, then qualify that observation with the added observation that the happy ending is the one where most of the characters achieve some measure of success after having competed for it. One could also consider the number of such endings that were dictated by publishers after having read the original endings produced first by their authors. Charles Dickens, who knew his way around endings, comes to mind with his original ending to arguably his most superbly realized novel, Great Expectations. Dickens's publisher was not happy with the ending, asked for, and got an alternate where things produced a greater glow of home, but at what cost?

In some noteworthy cases, publication seems to depend on the trope of the greater good rather that what works for a single character. The ending, which is to say the payoff of Lolita had to have a justice-is-served ending because the stakes were--and still are--so high. Conventional morality wants Humbert Humbert to have suffered more than he already has. Conventional morality wants to forget that Dolores-Dolly-Lolita might have been sophisticated and aware enough to have read Humbert and his intentions and, accordingly, to have "been there" for him.

Two notably happy endings that bear heavy irony are found in Huckleberry Finn and Catch-22; each novel ending with the protagonist fleeing from a decidedly impossible situation. Both these happy endings deserve consideration and study. Each one has the protagonist faced with an untenable fate. As readers, we join them in that escape and consequently experience the happiness of the ending. Humbert Humbert is in a no-win situation. Even if he'd been able to ride off into the sunset with Dolores, we know she'd probably have grown tired of him soon enough and, indeed, he would have grown tired of her because she was already on the verge of outgrowing his range of interest.

As in other relevant matters, the writer must be the arbiter of what constitutes the happiness part of the happy ending trope. The better way to look at the happy ending is to see it as a "justice served" moment, when the time has come to cash in the characters' and the author's chips for dramatic currency.

Annie Proulx's short story, "Brokeback Mountain," written to expose what she felt was the resident homophobia of most rural areas, can hardly be said to have a happy ending, but given the characters and the author's stake in it, the payoff of the story speaks to the issue of justice and the double standard in its service.

Happy endings and sad endings are opening hands in the metaphoric poker game of the contemporary story; the true ending, the literary ending, comes with the reflection on the fate of the characters involved as it is measured against justice, served or not served.

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