Sunday, May 9, 2010

TSS: And they did NOT live happily ever after

Happily Ever After

A traditional happy ending is one in which the main character ends in a happy frame of mind.  This is often associated with fairy tales and romance novels.  YA books used to end happily most of the time, though not so much any more.  Many of the old school Disney cartoons involving princesses being saved from evil women by stiff and not very exciting princes end with the phrase, "And they lived happily ever after."  And so we are made to believe it, to feel that they must be happy because the story says so.

But what if you don't believe it?  Then is it really that happy an ending?

Cinderella and Prince CharmingMany fairy tale retellings (particularly those of my favorite, Cinderella) are based on the presumption that, whatever we may be told, those princesses and princes become disenchanted with each other pretty quickly.  And it's easy to see why.  After all, Snow White was woken up by a kiss.  Ditto for Sleeping Beauty.  I put more faith in Cinderella's story because she and Prince Charming at least danced and had an entire evening together before marriage.  But it's easy to see why people don't buy it.  Just because we are told they live happily ever after, does that mean we actually believe it?

Northanger AbbeyAnother romance that has always made me skeptical is the one existing between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.  Henry Tilney is a pretty stellar male lead.  He is handsome.  He is witty.  He is very, very funny.  Catherine Morland is... nice.  She doesn't even get his sense of humor.  She is not particularly intelligent.  In A Truth Universally Acknowledged, one of the essay writers states that she can't help but think that Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland will end up very much like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in several years, and I must agree.  I am sorry, but I just can't believe that Catherine and Henry will live happily ever after.  I think they'd be far better off going their separate ways, each finding someone else to marry.

Thus, I am vaguely dissatisfied with the book.  My unease is that the characters end the book quite happy, but I am not happy for the characters.  So, if the characters end the book happy, but I as the reader am not happy, then can it really be considered a "happy ending"?

What do you think?  Does a happy ending require only the character to be satisfied at the end?  Or does it also require satisfaction on the part of the reader?  Do you have a book that left you feeling skeptical?


  1. A happy ending can be nice but only if it fits with the story. I'm more satisfied if the ending is congruent with the story. Forced happy endings annoy me

  2. Take kite runner for instance. A happy ending would have ruined the book

  3. Anonymous5/09/2010

    Happy endings definitely need to keep the reader happy to qualify. I mean, if the main character falls in love with a random new character a chapter from the end, the character might end up happy, but the reader isn't. I tend to gravitate towards less happily-ever-after books, but I do need a happy ending every once in a while, or it really affects my mood.

  4. As long as the couple feel there can be a HEA then I am happy, I need a HEA. While a friend of mine wants books to end miserably

  5. I definitely think the ending needs to suit the book or I end up feeling very unsatisfied. It always frustrates me when there's a love story in a book but I can't really believe in it.

  6. I don't really believe in the whole "happily ever after" thing. In fact, I've read a fair few spoofs; one called "after happily ever after". Pretty much sums it up.

  7. I absolutely think the ending needs to suit the book. If the love story feels forced then it can be very disappointing.

    However I think we need to be careful about thinking that because the happy ending doesn't feel right to us it's not right for the characters. It's the same with tragic endings, sometimes I find them unnecessary (Will and Lyra for example would it have been so bad if they'd lived happily ever after? sigh) but I have to accept that the ending is best for the book even as I rebel against it.

  8. An ending has to be satisfying for the reader. I don't mind whether it's HEA or more ambiguous, as long as it fits the book. What really bugs me is when you get to the end of a book and it doesn't feel like a proper conclusion. You turn the last page thinking 'Where's the rest?' or 'That was dumb.' The same with endings that go on past their sell by date. I recently read a novel that had the perfect finishing place 10 pages before it actually did end, by which time I'd gone from satisfied to irritated.
    As far as love stories in books go, the HEA is always ephemeral. Sooner or later one of them is going to die and leave the other behind. I always take the HEA to mean 'Happy in this moment' rather than 'Happy forever.'

  9. I say, satisfaction of the reader is a more important component to a happy ending that that of a character. It is after all, up to a reader to decide what a happy ending is and it's different for each and everyone of us. I have always been irked by groups of people trying to decide "what the author wanted to say"and agree on just one thing. The author wanted to say precisely what he/she said but that's not the important thing. It's how it speaks to us that's important. As you noticed yourself, The Snow White building a relationship with a man who kissed her once seems more like a nightmare of a life than a happy ending. She will now have to remain a grateful housewife, forever paying off the debt of having her life saved. But that's just me or you thinking that. There very well may be eternal optimists who want to believe that the prince and Snow White will indeed stay happy ever after, and there's nothing wrong with that either. It's what the ending means to the reader and not what it is.

  10. I don't tend to like happy-ending books as much as ones that end mixed, ambiguous, or tragically. If the happy ending is realistic, I don't mind so much, but if I can't believe the ending, then I am disatisfied with a happy end. I'm all for realism in a book.

  11. Too funny, I was thinking about this just yesterday! Have you heard Sara Barreilles song 'Fairy Tale'? I was thinking about fairy tale re-tellings (and wondering if some books on fairy tales had arrived in the mail yet!) when this song came one. I love it because it looks at just that - how the princesses feel AFTER the supposed 'happily ever after'. It is too funny, and I highly recommend it.

    For me when it comes to happy endings I think I need to feel satisfied that it works. Just because the character is happy at the moment doesn't make me satisfied that things will work out - we as the reader know more about the characters than the one character does, which gives us a better idea of whether or not they should be happy. Or at least that is my opinion! :)

  12. When I was younger and obviously more naive happily ever after meant always. Now with life experience it means "for now".

    What Lesbrary said about a character falling in love with a random new one - that happened in a book I recently read and it was a mess, instead of using one of the many real possible relationships the character could have had that the reader would have loved the author opted for a character introduced near the end from whom no love was shown and no love given until suddenly they were together and the author suggesting we knew it would happen.

    I think a happy ending requires both reader and character happiness, though because the characters in fiction aren't real, reader satisfaction is more important, we're the ones getting something from the story.

  13. Interesting question. I admit to preferring happy endings because I get very emotionally invested in the books I read and a happy ending makes me happy as well. While a real happy ending would involve both the books characters and myself to be happy with the ending, I would say it's the happiness of the book's characters that make a real happy ending. If a reader enjoys tragic endings and is therefore pleased with the ending of a book, that does not make the ending a happy one.

  14. Sometimes a "happy ending" doesn't leave me satisfied at all! When my daughter was young I sometimes changed the "happy ending" of fairy tales to have the female characters be stronger and more independent than they were in the story. So, Cinderella didn't always marry the prince and snow white didn't always go off with her prince. Then we read the Paperbag Princess where the girl actually stands up for herself and my daughter said, "read it again and have them get married so they live happily ever after!" So I did. Happilly ever after can be so many different things and I've rambled on too long without really saying much. Sorry!

  15. I kind of enjoy an ending in which the characters appear happy but you know that it is all a bit of illusion. The cynic in me I suppose.

    Happy endings, in any form, are never required but it is nice to stumble upon bits of great happiness from time to time no matter how improbable. For instance, I just finished Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day for Persephone Week, and adored the fairy tale ending. Just nice to embrace an ideal sometimes rather than a reality.

  16. bookmagic- Same!

    Booklover- Agreed, but the author didn't use a happy ending, so I think he was going for fitting over happy.

    lesbrary- I hate when the love interest appears right towards the end, too! It makes it seem as though the author just feels uncomfortable keeping the person single at the end, which really bothers me.

    Blodeuedd- Haha, you and your friend must like every different books!

    Meghan- Yes, that is very frustrating. Much like Northanger Abbey for me. Though I like that book, I just can't imagine it's forever happy.

    anothercookiecrumbles- Ooh, spoofs are fun! Though I like to think that Cinderella at least was happy ;-)

    Jodie- You're right. I think Will and Lyra had a very fitting end, and I was satisfied with it. There is a difference between being unsatisfied with the ending and being satisfied but sad with the ending, I think. But I think I am only ever dissatisfied with a happy ending when I do NOT think it is what's best for the characters.

    Elizabeth- Yes, I feel the same way! In fact, I refuse to read the last section of LOTR because I think the whole Shire part is just completely unnecessary.

    lilly- Yes, you may be right as I am sure some endings annoyed me but did not annoy other people. I guess that's why no two people ever read the same story.

    Amanda- It doesn't surprise me that you prefer the ambiguous endings! I feel if it is ambiguous, it's easier to make up what you think your OWN happy ending is, which I like.

    Amy- I have heard that song! I should download it. I agree with your opinion, too.

    Charlie- I agree with you and Elizabeth that perhaps happily ever after does mean "for now." Though that idea also makes me sad! I suppose all things are transitory.

    Simcha- That is very true! Can't argue with your logic.

    Helen- I LOVE that you changed the endings for your daughter! And now I want to read this Paperbag Princess, too.

    Frances- I must be cynical, too, as that is basically the ending of Northanger Abbey, which I just cannot buy. I have heard so much about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day- and I think based on just how fun and light that book seems, that a happy ending makes sense.

  17. I like book endings that have some ambiguity and allow the reader to form his/her own conclusions.

    IMO, endings are just another beginning, and if every book had a sequel that picked up where the first one ended, we would see how reality shines a different light on events.

    My salon:

  18. In most of the books I've read lately, you can project who is supposed to end up together from pretty early on. As long as it works out that way, then I'm pretty happy with the ending. I generally don't question what the characters' futures will be like. In real life, we all know couples who look like they shouldn't be together but they end up happily married until one of them dies. If a couple doesn't seem to go together in a book, I assume something has been left on the cutting room floor that would explain the attraction further. Perhaps I've been watching too many DVD extras :-).

  19. I agree with you about Northanger Abbey - my least favourite Austen novel - quite what Henry Tilney sees in Catherine Morland is a mystery! All I can think of is that, like Edmund Bertram with Fanny Price, he's hoping to shape her opinions so that she is the perfect wife for him, seeing things exactly the same way he sees them. She is young enough, and not without potential, though nowhere near his equal intellectually.

    I have the same problem with the ending of Sense and Sensibility - Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon - Marianne is a Romantic, Brandon is far too old for her, she felt obliged to marry him because he saved her life - there is no passion there.

    I think as long as the ending follows from the rest of the book and is in harmony with the previous events then it's a good ending, whether happy or sad. But so many books start off really well, and have dire endings! Books which I can think of off the top of my head in this category - Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Popco, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Book Thief. And it spoils your enjoyment of the whole book.

  20. I think that to rate as a happy ending, it should also be satisfying for the reader. And I agree with you about Northanger Abbey -- the pairing of Catherine and Henry didn't satisfy me either. I didn't feel that Henry, in any way, considered Catherine his equal. That made me angry. How could their marriage possibly work, in a meaningful way, over the long haul?

  21. Laurel-Rain- That's a good point, imagining your own sequel.

    Dani- I've never thought that maybe it was due to editing! Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

    Tracy- Oh, sad! As Tilney is one of my favorite Austen heroes, it makes me sad to think he just wants to mold Catherine for himself ;-) I can definitely see why S&S upsets you, too! It's a good ending in that Marianne will be cared for, but I don't know if she will be happy. I actually like the ending of The book Thief myself, though!

    Steph- Exactly! It just seemed like he would eventually tire of her and start becoming unkind.

  22. Yep, that's one of the things that can ruin a book for me - an ending I don't buy, whether it is happy or not.

  23. To me, a happy ending has to be believable. I don't want the writer to put characters together just because it's what he/she thinks should happen. An ending has to be satisfying even if a book doesn't end on the best note.

  24. Anonymous5/09/2010

    I think a happy ending only works when the reader is left feeling satisfied that it really is a happy ending. Otherwise, there seems to be little point in claiming that the characters are. It often frustrats me, but then I come to certain genre-books with the expectation of seeing a happy ending, so maybe the fault is all mine.

    I never really thought about Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland. Or well, I think I did, but like you I never really thought they made a realistic "happily ever after" couple. I think I got myself to accept it in the end, because I've always felt that the book isn't so much about the lovestory but about the social commentary and it ridiculing trends. If it weren't for those two ingredients, Northanger Abbey wouldn't have been a book I'd enjoyed, I think. I do read other orks of Austen expecting it to be a convincing happy ending, but somehow not so much in this specific case.

  25. For a book to end with a "happily ever after" ending, I totally have to buy into that happiness in order to agree with the book. Many times I have encountered stories that ties up everything in a neat little bow, and the author ends the tale with happiness that I do not believe in and do not trust. This to me makes an inferior ending, and often when I close the book, I feel a little niggle that all did not end right. The last book that I felt this way about was South of Broad, but there have been several that fit the description. Just because a book doesn't end happily doesn't make it less of a read for me, and often I find a lot of merit in books that end rather messily and without that age old happy ending. Sometimes an author takes a circuitous route towards that happiness that ends the story, and I appreciate it, but more often, I find myself believing that most happy endings are not deserved and not really all that realistic. This is a wonderful topic, and I am really glad you brought it up!!

  26. I don't mind happy endings, but only if they seem to fit with what the story was doing and not just a way to wrap everything up. If it feels like it doesn't for the story, the ending doesn't work for me. And I suppose that generally I'm more skeptical of happy endings because in real life we rarely get an entirely happy ending (even if endings of things can feel satisfying).

  27. I actually completely disagree about Henry and Catherine! But Renay explains why much better than I could.

    As for happy endings in general, like many commenters said before it depends on whether or not they suit the overall tone of the story. I hate a happy ending that seems to come out of nowhere, but then again, the same is true of an unhappy end.

    I do wish more love stories moved beyond the "they lived happily ever after", though, because to me that's when things are *starting* to get interesting. I'm much more interested in how people develop and maintain intimacy on a daily basis than on "the thrill of the chase".

  28. The happiness of Blanche at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, when the male insane asylum attendant acts like a gentleman, heightens the tragedy, as does Rachel's happiness with getting her hat returned on the bus at the end of Wish Her Safe At Home. Those are the only examples I can think of right now, but it doesn't seem unusual to me for an author to use a character's happiness to show readers that the ending isn't as happy as the characters may see it.

  29. I guess my satisfaction with "happy endings" largely depends on the type of story it is. With a very character-driven story, I do need to feel that those two people are a good match for each other. When it's more plot-driven, and the romance wasn't the point, I'm more relaxed about whether I think they're "right" for each other.

    Although I will say I always find it a little dodgy when the book (or film) is all about two people who are thrown together by circumstance and then spend the whole book running for their lives from whatever enemy is after one or both of them. Then they end up together, and there's a part of me that thinks, But - but they don't even know each other! The blush of sexiness from all the jeopardy they've been in is going to wear off and then they're going to be bored! It doesn't necessarily leave me dissatisfied, but I also don't necessarily buy it.

  30. Lenore- Glad I'm not the only one!

    Vasilly- Agreed!

    Iris- You're right, it's definitely more of a satire and thus, maybe it's a tongue-in-cheek "happily ever after."

    Zibilee- Yes, exactly!

    Kim- Yes, I am often skeptical because perhaps I'm more cynical.

    Nymeth- Thank you for the link, but I stand by my statement that they would not be happy in the long-term!

    I wish more would delve into after the "hook-up" stage, too.

    Jeanne- I think that's different, though. I don't think those books have traditionally happy endings that are hard to believe in. I think they have really sad endings and that you still see the character's humanity and need for love through them. It's the forced "These people end up together and are happy forever" endings that I have trouble stomaching.

    Jenny- Yes, I absolutely agree! I guess in that way, James Bond is very realistic as he is never with a woman for very long at all after adventures!

  31. I'm with others who say that it really depends on the story as a whole. I need a happy ending to fit with the general story. I don't like the ending of Pride and Prejudice because for me it comes completely out of left field, but I do like the end of Northanger Abbey :)

  32. I definitely want the book to end in happily ever after, but I am not satisfied there. As a reader I must also like and agree with the happily ever after in order to give it a high rank on my personal bookshelf.

  33. Anonymous5/10/2010

    I used to be all about the HEA. But now I just want it to be appropriate to the story. And a sense of resolution is nice, too. I usually get frustrated if I turn the last page and go "huh?"

  34. I'm a romantic. I love happily ever after stories. I can't comment on Northanger Abbey. I guess I prefer it to be romantic and realistic (Pride and Prejudice is just perfect in my book....)


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