Happiness is boring,” and “Riding off into the sunset is not true,” insisted a Noted Author at a symposium I attended earlier this month on the proposition that happiness simply cannot make good literature. And as I resisted – just barely – the urge to pull Sense and Sensibility from my backpack, he lobbed up this comment about Austen unprompted: She is “done for” because we’ve entered “a divorce culture.” One can no longer rely on one’s mate.
I flipped to the back of the journal in which I was taking notes: Pfhew, the photo of my husband of twenty years was still there.
“At home later, I Googled “happy ending”: what I got was nothing about literature and everything about a massage that … well … people do seem to like. As I sat in that symposium, though, I had only my own favorite books to stack up against the Noted Author’s no-happy-endings admonishment. Among the classics, five of my eight favorites qualified, I decided, for happy ending status: Pierre and Natasha, Princess Marya and Nikolay, and even young Nikolinka all leave us with a sense of contentment and hope in War and Peace, as do Dorothea in Middlemarch and pretty much everyone in Austen’s books. Despite the tough spots in To Kill a Mockingbird, it ends with Atticus’s “youthful step … returned” and even Boo Radley emerging as a nice guy when one got to know him; most people are in real life, Scout learns—unlike in books! As for Mildred Lathbury, the most excellent of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women? She ends up feeling as if she “might be going to have what Helena called ‘a full life’ after all”—even without finding a mate on whom she couldn’t rely for her happiness anyway, if the Noted Author is to be believed. Admittedly, my other three favorite classics tilt toward deadly endings, with an emphasis on suicide—but only three of eight. And, yes, my favorites among contemporary works do tend more toward cautiously hopeful rather than unabashedly happy, but if the choice is happy ending or sad, most would fall on the happy side of the line.
Which I understood the Noted Author to say puts me at best as someone who sticks her head in the sand and at worst a person who doesn’t care about the sad condition of my fellow travelers on this earth. Which maybe I am – we’re never the best judges of ourselves, are we? But here’s the thing: I get the grim truth from The New York Times and NPR every morning; I get an evening News Hour of it from Jim Lehrer. When it comes to books, I like to feel better when I turn the last page than I did when I opened the cover. That’s much of why I read: to experience joy, and to discover hope. And isn’t it hope that moves us forward, that inspires us, ultimately, to put our own shoulders to the task of making this world a better place? Isn’t that – the power to change the world – the defining greatness that makes the best of literature endure beyond whatever culture we might or might not be in at any given time?