Editor’s Note: Thar be spoilers.
I don’t hate on all happy endings. I LOVE Jane Eyre, which has the happiest possible ending to also include the total conflagration of someone’s manor house, the death of a tragic madwoman, and the blinding and maiming of a principle character. Reader, she marries him, and also comes into a considerable inheritance, rendering their financial inequality less prohibitive. *sinks delightedly into nearest chaise longue clutching embroidery or some shit to her bosom*
But Jane Eyre is an outlier among my favorites. Most of my Top Ten looks more like Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, wherein a young time-traveller, aiming for the early 14th century, undershoots by about 20 years and ends up in the middle of the black plague. It’s an incredible novel, enormous and personal and funny and sad, and WARNING SPOILER ALERT
everyone dies. I mean, not everyone. Most of her colleagues in the future (who are struck down by a plague themselves, which distracts them from their task of trying desperately to pull her out IN A RACE AGAINST TIME once they realize where she’s gone, it’s really very exciting), most of them survive. But the little village that she lands in, the cranky teenagers and the doll-faced, grubby children and the stalwart priests, and the quiet mothers who take her in and nurse her, THEY ALL DIE BECAUSE CLOSE QUARTERS AND POOR SANITATION AND BASICALLY NO MEDICINE. It’s amazingly, almost unbearably sad, and it is the best.
Because I love tragedy. I love secrets, and skeletons that drop in unexpectedly at parties, ruining reputations and shocking maiden aunts. I love manor houses burning to the ground, I love everyone dying of plague, I love books like We Were Liars where the burnt-down house ain’t the HALF of it. But I also love misunderstandings resolved, reconciliations at airports, fortunes made, fair maidens won and also fair dudes. I love Elizabeth Bennets and Bridget Joneses to find their respective Darcys.
But respective Darcys are harder to come by honestly. I was reading Us by David Nicholls, and thinking to myself, If this book Happy Endings, I’m going to buy a manor house and set it on fire myself.
The main character spends 17+ years being a super shitty dad (not, like, the bumbling but well-intentioned tv sitcom dad, but the ‘How can you not understand long division? It’s not that hard. Also, why are you not more grateful to me for helping you with your homework? WHY DOES NO ONE APPRECIATE MY CONSTANT ATTEMPTS TO MAKE THEM BETTER PEOPLE?’ kind of dad) and then his wife threatens to leave him and his son abandons them both on a family tour of Europe and he, Douglas, goes on a quest to find his son, bring him back, and re-win his wife’s heart, and for a second there it looked like 17+ years of shitty dad-and-husbanding were going to be wiped out in one romantic gesture and THAT IS NOT HOW RELATIONSHIPS WORK.
To Nicholls’ credit, he settles for eventual amicable separation between the characters. It’s almost a non-ending. But the moment of total panic I experienced when it looked like Us was going to H.E., when Douglas finds his son, when the son (despite having fled for good reason, despite having had a nasty trick played on him to track him down, despite not actually wanting to be found) inexplicably and immediately thaws towards his dad, when his wife clings to him gratefully, calling him a ‘clever man’ upon the return of said son, that deep-seated sense of wrongness and revulsion made me question why I prefer the unhappy ending. Is it verisimilitude? Do I find tragic endings more realistic? Or is it the shock and awe? Happy endings are all alike, but unhappy endings, to mix quotations, escalate quickly. Am I just a dour old crank who wants everyone to be miserable? Do I enjoy the catharsis of crying all over the place?
Why do some of us ENJOY unhappy endings so much? Which do you prefer?
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