endings: again

Chris and Meredith made some interesting comments to the February 23 post regarding happy vs. happily-ever-after and hollywood tragic vs. genuinely tragic endings.

Meredith’s definition of a Hollywood-tragic ending is “tragedy culminates for emotional effect rather than to progress a narrative”, and her examples are good ones (Saving Private Ryan vs. The Bronze Horseman –a novel she liked and I wanted to like, but couldn’t).

The UVic Writer’s Guide has a good entry on tragedy, which starts:

Tragedy depicts serious incidents in which protagonists undergo a change from happiness to suffering, often involving the death of others as well as the main characters, and resulting from both the protagonists’ actions and the inescapable limits of the human condition.

Of course if you’re going to really get into this, there’s a difference between classical tragedy and modern tragedy, but rather than thrash that around I’ll stick with the ‘genuinely tragic’ generalization, and propose that Cold Mountain has a Hollywood-tragic ending and The Hours a genuinely tragic one (and this is true whether you’re talking about the books or the movies). Another issue is this: a genuinely tragic ending doesn’t necessarily make a good story, in my opinion — but it at least has that potential.

At the moment, I’m more interested in examples of happily-ever-after vs. (for lack of a better term) genuinely optimistic endings. I’m thinking about examples. Yell if you’ve got some.

7 Replies to “endings: again”

  1. An example of a genuinely optimistic ending – David Malouf’s “Fly Away Peter”. While the climax of the narrative is the death of the male protagonist, the ending itself is nevertheless genuinely optimistic in so far as the remaining characters are reconciled to his death and their places in his life, and this blends well with the overall optimism following the end of the Great War that (apparently) resounded in Australian society.

    Perhaps a more universal example – I would argue that Jane Austen’s “Emma” offers a ‘happily ever after’ ending that contrasts sharply with that in “Pride and Prejudice”. I have problems imaging Emma settling down to married life with nary a moment of discontent, as the end of the novel seemed to imply. “Pride and Prejudice”, on the other hand, alluded to a continuation of the ‘battle of wills’ between Elizabeth and Darcy well into their married life – the conclusion is perhaps not as neat as “Emma” in that it is clear that the conflicts throughout the novel were not tied up neatly at the end, but it is far more satsifying…I for one draw a great deal of pleasure out of imaging the hearthside discussions in Elizabeth’s house!

  2. I agree with you about Emma, and I think Mansfield Park also falls into this ‘happily ever after’ and not quite so successful rubric. That’s why (I realize now) I liked the movie adaptation so much, because it turned Frannie and Edmund’s rather pat resolution into a genuinely optimistic rather than a happily-ever-after one. I also loved the way Austen’s own letters and personal writings were threaded into the dialog.

  3. I’ve been trying to think of happy endings, and all I keep coming up with are the tragic ones. I think it’s because it’s February. Anyway, Nuala O’Faolain’s (I know that’s not how you spell her last name…) last book, “Dreaming of You” (or something like that) had an optimistic ending, I thought. She didn’t end up with a man or slay all her demons, but she made a choice to change her life and not live always waiting for the good to finally come along. Of course, it could just be about where my head was when I read it, but I found it optimistic and really liked it, despite my vagueness on the minor details like title.

  4. I was thinking last night…Jane Austen is both wonderfully and cleverly ironic – so much so that it times can be difficult to determine quite what her intended interpretation of a particular event or circumstance is. So I wonder if, in the case of Emma and Mansfield Park, the ‘happily ever after’ endings she offers are in fact tongue in cheek (so to speak). We as readers know that Emma has not undergone the kind of epiphany that will reconstruct her character into that of mild housewife and indeed, I imagine that Austen never intended it. Rather, she offers the fairytale conclusion to embed the novel in her own social context, when in fact she neither desires it for her characters nor desires her readers to accept it on behalf of her characters. Perhaps she intends to provoke a “hmm, this is not quite right” feeling in her readers? Just a thought, anyway…

    I’ve not seen the new movie of Mansfield Park – I’ve been looking for it for a while, but haven’t been able to get a copy on DVD here.

  5. I spend more time in political/diplomatic meetings than I care to admit to, and when someone says “interesting comment” there it normally means something quite different… *grin*
    But I’ll ignore that for now and present a new (?) theory: Good endings (can) trandecend the notion of “happiness” or, to coin a word, “un-happiness”. Take the ending of “The Tesseract” by Alex Garland or the end in “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk – they both defy categorization of this kind. Neither is particularly up-beat or all-together sad, but infinately enjoyable nontheless…

    Stoopid? Interesting? Beside the point? You decide…

  6. Chris: out of the meeting loop as I am, I did mean ‘interesting’ in its traditional sense: made me think. And now I’m thinking about this happiness/un-happiness/beside-the-point contrast and I like it. I’ll be wondering about books that fit in with your two examples all day.

    Meredith: I put nothing past Austen, not after reading her correspondence. She had a wicked sense of humor in life as in fiction.

    Christina: I’ll see if I can find that title. I sometimes can’t remember the titles of my own books, so I can sympathize. My daughter calls these lapses of mine (o so prosaically) brain-farts.

  7. Sara/Rosina- It’s My Dream of You (went home and looked it up on the shelf). I call them brain-farts too, but usually only around people who know me really well.

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