Do happy endings only work in very lightweight fiction?
Yes, if happy means happy ever after with a firm full stop and an opaque curtain over the future.
But the ending to a novel can be ‘happy’ without being trite or artificial. The ending is merely where the story is sliced off – the reader, having lived with and become emotionally involved with the characters, knows that there will be troubles to come, because that is what life is like, but is satisfied by the novel ending with some kind of resolution of past troubles. A novel with depth and meaning will have foreshadowed all this. We will go on living with our hero/heroine after the last page.
Modern literary fiction seems to have a problem with happy endings, perhaps as a way of distancing itself from some of the marshmallow feel-good paperbacks wearing bright colours in supermarkets. Endings are often bleak, creepy or so ambiguous that you’re left completely at sea. This has an advantage of course as it fuels discussion at the book group. (Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White provoked agonised questions about what actually happened to one character). Difficult endings can make you feel cheated. All that investment in the characters and you end up more confused than ever.
Conversely readers can also be irritated at having everything unconvincingly tidied up and everyone cosily paired off. You don’t like to feel you’re being manipulated or offered a sugary fantasy. You don’t want to spend any more time with these characters set in a jelly mould of static happiness. Time for reading is precious and you’ve been wasting it with this one…
A suggestion of change, the promise of something good to come, is perhaps enough at the end of a novel for those of us who like ‘happy endings’?