Happy ending, nice and tidy
It’s a rule I learned in school
Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertholt Brecht’s lyrics to the finale of The Threepenny Opera is laced with irony. Life, the song goes on to say, does not work out so neatly, with Queen Victoria’s messenger riding to the rescue.
Recently on my own website, we had a lively discussion about book series and in particular the wonderful Sebastian St. Cyr Regency-set mystery series by C.S. Harris, and whether Sebastian would end up with his old, star-crossed love, the actress Kat Boleyn, or his enemy's daughter, the bluestocking Hero Jarvis, who plays a larger role in the newest book in the series. There was, I realized, an implicit assumption by all of us (including me) that Sebastian at least would have a happy ending. But one of the things that both delights me and sets me on edge as a reader in mystery series, as opposed to romances, is that the happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Which for me as a reader can make a happy ending that much sweeter (one of my favorite romantic endings is to Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy, because it seems so hard-fought for and so very much not-guaranteed). But also leaves the door nerve-wrackingly open to other possibilities.
I love happy endings. I root for them against all odds, I worry about favorite characters, I rewrite “unsatisfactory” stories in my head. But some of my favorite stories don’t have happy endings, and, I have to admit, wouldn’t be the better for them. I recently saw the final dress of a breathtaking production of La Bohème at San Francisco Opera. La Bohème emphatically doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending (I usually start crying in Act I–this time was no exception). On the other hand, Rent, based on the same story, does have a happy ending. I loved Rent, but the ending left me completely baffled, and in a sense ruined the show for me. I thought this was because I’d seen La Bohème. I saw Rent with my friend Penny, who also knows Bohème well; like me she ended the show staring at the stage in confusion. But I saw the Bohème dress rehearsal with my friend Greg who said he’d seen Rent before Bohème and he found the ending of Rent jarring as well.
I love and adore happy endings. But not all stories, even–perhaps especially–not all love stories, work with a happy ending. When Mimì came in in the last act of Bohème, I had a moment of thinking “oh, I don’t want her to die.” And yet a different ending takes something away from the power of the story.
When I brought the topic up on my own website, Donna commented that, "I confess to liking happy endings in novels, probably because life seems to dole them out sparingly. I also confess to wondering what happens down the line to some characters. Everything is so lovely and yet, you know there will be ups and downs. Having said that, I also enjoy other stories that you really can’t decide how it will end. It is fascinating to watch characters develop and change through a series especially. There is a tension that keeps me reading."I find I always want to know what happens after the end of the novel too. So even though I like happy endings, I don’t really consider the story finished. One reason I love series, and even if a novel isn’t part of a series, I often think about “what happens next.” And ambiguous endings can be fascinating. I particularly like watching characters grow and relationships play out over the course of a series. Elizabeth George’s series is harrowing but also riveting. I love the Poldark and Palliser series, both the books and the tv adapations.
And then of course there's the whole question of what makes an ending "happy." In the discussion on my website, Stephanie brought up a recent production she'd seen of All's Well That Ends Well that made her "believe that they might achieve happiness, with time and work on both sides." I've seen All's Well several times, and I remember feeling much more optimistic about the ending when I first saw, which I think has less to do with the production and more with the fact that I was a teenager at the time. My definition of a happy ending was "Helena loves Bertram, they're married and he's accepted the marriage, so it's happy." These days my definition of a happy ending is decidedly more complex. As I mentioned in a previous post, after a production of Bus Stop, friends and I had decidedly different opinions about how "ever after" the happy ending was.
Stephanie also commented that "I suppose what I’m really in favor of are endings that seem true to what’s gone before. And I really can’t stand endings that jerk me around emotionally: like love stories that have one of the protagonists die violently on the last page, when all the signs have been pointing toward a happy or at least upbeat ending. Bittersweet or ambiguous is acceptable, as long as there’s been some indication all along that things might turn out that way." I think being true to what's gone before in the story is the most important thing for me about an ending working (and why the ending of Rent didn't work for me).
How do you feel about endings? Favorite examples to suggest of happy or non-happy endings? Or something in between? Has a jarring ending ever damaged a book for you? Writers, is there any type of ending you don't think you'd ever write?