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A Dearth of Mirth at the End of Many Great Novels

10/11/2011 03:27 pm ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

After just finishing The House of Mirth, I'm reminded once again that many great novels don't have happy endings.

Some of the endings are totally tragic, and others offer a measure of hope after plenty of emotional or physical trauma. But few fiction classics seem to conclude in a way that's mostly... mirthful.

Maybe this is because real life is often negative -- meaning novels that reflect this negativity seem "true." Plus the suffering of characters can give books more "gravitas" and drama.

(Here's where I offer an undramatic "spoiler alert" of sorts. In the rest of this post, I won't give away the exact endings of books but will generally say if those endings are unhappy or a mixed bag.)

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (nee Jones) is a classic partly because of the author's superb writing and intimate knowledge of the monied class (the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" was reportedly first used to describe the wealthy family of her father). But another big reason why the 1905 book is so compelling lies in the misery the Lily Bart character experiences as she becomes the target of gossip and nastiness from the idle rich in her social circle. The downward spiral for this spoiled but ethical woman makes the novel extremely sad, and powerful.

Interestingly, some scholars believe Nathaniel Hawthorne was pressured to write a happier ending than he wanted for The House of the Seven Gables. That saves readers some tears, but the positive last few chapters are speed bumps for the 1851 book's tragic momentum -- and help place Gables on a lower rung of classics than Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

To further explore the matter of unhappy endings, I looked at TheGreatestBooks.org's list of the best 100 novels. Of the ones I've read, hardly any end in a completely joyful way.

But many books on that list wrap up quite sadly. These include F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, George Orwell's 1984, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Richard Wright's Native Son, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, among others.

A number of great novels allow the surviving characters some happiness at the end, but there's still a measure of lingering melancholy for what transpired in the rest of the book. Examples of this on that top-100 list include J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, and many more.

Can you name any classic novels that end in a totally happy way?

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