There’s something fascinating about an author who finishes up a novel right before an era of social upheaval.
The author ties up her plot, writes her characters’ endings, and assumes everything will go on the way it has. Maybe better, even. She writes her characters’ happy endings. And then, in her imagination and in the imaginations of the readers, the characters live on in an extended version of the author’s status quo, where they can live happily and nothing really changes.
Meanwhile, in real life, something happens that changes everything.
The first time I became aware of this I was reading Anna Karenina. It was hard to read about all that glittering Russian aristocracy without thinking about the revolution that would bring the nobility crashing down a few decades later. (It doesn’t even have to be a negative event. It’s hard for me to imagine iconic characters from the ’20s, ’50s, ’60s, or even ’80s surviving outside of their decades.)
When you’re living in a stable time, you assume the stability you’re used to will continue. The juxtaposition between fiction and history demonstrates, disturbingly, how fragile social norms are.
Below are characters from nine books. Some of them were given happy endings, some of them not, but all of their books were set right before the world changed.
DISCLAIMER: Because this post is about endings, there will be spoilers.
Both happy couples in The Count of Monte Cristo — When the Count of Monte Cristo sails off into the sunset with his new lady, Haydée, at the end of the book, the promising young couple he leaves behind, Valentine and Maximilien have each other and a fortune. Presumably, they go back to France to live a long, happy, wealthy life together. But yeah, no. We’re talking about France here. France has had a lot of revolutions. The Count of Montecristo ends in 1839. Less than a decade later The Revolution of 1848 took place, as workers and small business owners rose up to topple the government and establish the soon-to-be-toppled Second Republic. Unemployment was high, tensions between political parties were boiling over, and if Valentine and Maximilien had the money, they would certainly have fled Paris and maybe even France. If not, they may well have been caught up in the violence before the establishment of The Second Empire. As for the Count and Haydée, anything could have happened to them. There was continuing war and unrest in Haydée’s native Albania in the 1840s, for example. There were also conflicts in Italy, Morocco, Egypt, and China, to name a few.
The Levins in Anna Karenina – Anna Karenina was published in installments from 1873 to 1877. The book ends with Konstantin and Kitty living happily with their baby on an estate in the country. In the book Konstantin is depicted as a man of the land, his relationship with the peasants is supposedly a good one. The Russian Revolution of 1917, in which peasants divested the nobles of their land, happened just 40 years later. (Read with hindsight, the influences of communism are visible in the book — Konstantin feels free to admit that he doesn’t believe in religion after a chat with a peasant, for example.) The peasants would definitely have ousted the Levin family, pleasant relationship or not. Now, Konstantin was 32 when the book started, so he may not have survived to see the October Revolution. And Kitty, although young, might not have lived to see it either — childbirth killed women often in the 19th century. But Mitya, their infant son would almost certainly be the one facing the revolutionaries.
The Gao brothers from Family – Family is a trilogy that was published serially from 1931-2 by Chinese novelist Ba Jin, detailing the struggles of the three Gue brothers against their oppressively traditional grandfather. The oldest, Juexin, does whatever the grandfather tells him to do, entering an arranged marriage and quitting school. The middle brother, Juemin, elopes with his cousin. The youngest, Juehin, is a revolutionary and heads off to Shanghai. A little more than 10 years later, Juehin’s revolution would come home to roost, leaving a political and economic landscape that would be unrecognizable to his Confucian grandfather. First inflation, and then revolutionaries would topple upper-class families like the Gaos. Assuming Juehin survived the Civil War, however, he might find himself part of an emerging ruling Communist class.
The de Winters in Rebecca — Rebecca was published in 1938, so I always assume that’s the year in which it was set. And I wonder what happened to the couple at the center of that book when, a year later, World War II began. Maxim is 42 at the start of the book, so he is unlikely to be conscripted by the U.K.’s National Service Act in 1939. If he didn’t volunteer, however, he would have likely been conscripted by 1942, when men of up to 51 could be drafted. The second Mrs. de Winters, as a married woman, couldn’t be drafted, but she’d be very likely to join the wartime workforce. Although, since she worked before she got married, she’d probably be very comfortable in the workplace.
Vivaldo in Another Country – James Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country explores the lives of several young people living in Greenwich Village in the ’50s. The book features interracial couples, bisexuality and homosexuality. Vivaldo is the struggling novelist who’d loved the book’s early protagonist, Rufus. Seven years later, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street was raided, sparking the Stonewall Uprisings. Would Vivaldo be there? There were 205 patrons there the night of the raid, but the club was known for allowing dancing, and Vivaldo never seemed the dancing type. I could see him, however, participating in the riots and the activism that followed. Vivaldo was timid about his bisexuality through much of Another Country, but by 1969, he’d be ten years older, possibly more confident in his bisexuality, and fueled by the anger in the Village, ready to take a stand.
Ponyboy, Darry, Sodapop and Cherry from The Outsiders – Look. I know The Outsiders was set in 1965 and the sixties were well underway at that point, but to me, The Outsiders is the epitome of 1950s teen greaser life. (Maybe because the year is never stated in the book.) And because of that, I always wonder – what the hell happened to those kids from that book during the Summer of Love? Did Cherry become a hippie and go to Woodstock? Did Darry and Sodapop get drafted? And what about Ponyboy? Was he at a sit-in at a college somewhere or was he sent to Vietnam?
Lionel Essrog, Motherless Brooklyn – Motherless Brooklyn was published in 1999. It follows Lionel Essrog, who grows up an orphan in Brooklyn, and is adopted into the crew of local tough guy Frank Minna. As an adult, Essrog, who suffers from Tourette’s, is employed by Minna’s car sevice/P.I. outfit. His biggest case, however, is solving his own boss’s murder. Motherless Brooklyn is a love letter to both noir and NYC, and just a few years after the conclusion of the book, the World Trade Center would be attacked. I read the book after the Trade Center came down, and I wondered at the end, when I said good-bye to Essrog, then driving to JFK, what he was doing when he found out about the towers on Sept. 11.
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