When Ruth Graham led the charge against YA fiction for adults earlier this year, her argument was mostly solid (except for her failure to acknowledge that people should read whatever they want), but I found one point grating: That books for mature individuals shouldn't conclude in a neat, satisfying way. She wrote:
[T]hese books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction -- of the real world -- is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.
The "emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction" seems to refer to a particular faction of writers: Most post-20th century novelists who write or have written literary fiction. Plenty of classic books (though too few, if you ask me) have ended happily, or tragically, but decidedly unambiguously (remember what happened to poor Ethan Frome?). If literature is a survey of our collective experiences, does it not seem a touch cynical to argue that all emotionally honest stories should be vague and inconclusive?
Yes, most happy endings fall under Northrop Frye's "romance" or "anatomy" genres -- either existing in an insular, invented world with heightened, unrealistic emotions or a world with social structures that are described in detail, as the dressings for an embedded political statement. These approaches to writing can be thought-provoking and artistically valid. Failing to see the value in stories with neat, happy endings is certainly one quick way to turn a rosy reader into a Scrooge. Which is why we'd like to remind you that there are classic books with cheery conclusions. Here are 7 of our favorites:
Jane's early years are so riddled with torment that the least she deserves is a decisively happy ending. Her relationship with Rochester may be unconventional and rocky (which may be putting it lightly), but she eventually marries him out of love, rather than settling for a dutiful yet passionless union. It could be dismissed as unrealistic that he miraculously regains enough of his eyesight to witness the birth of his son, but the couple's myriad misfortunes make the detail a welcome one. Plus, the book's final chapter gives us the cathartic and endlessly quotable line, "Reader, I married him."
No thanks to a couple of meddling fairies, who themselves are in the throes of romantic tumult, Lysander and Demetrius are made to love each other's beloveds, causing a huge, hilarious ruckus. Add to this a pretentious playwright named Bottom who gets turned into a literal ass (ha-ha), and you've got a full-fledged farce on your hands. But the Bard has proven that tasteful punning can turn ridiculous exploits into a thoughtful story worth retelling for centuries. Ambiguity need not fog up a story's ending if the entire tale is peppered with nuance -- Shakespeare's fantastical fairies, for example, are a personification of the mysteries that underlie passion. When order is restored among the quarreling couples, the reader (or viewer) is left feeling both satisfied and intellectually challenged.
ICYMI: After an achingly long pilgrimage, Odysseus and Penelope are reunited! But Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar, to test his wife's true intentions. There've been suitors pursuing her, and she arranges an archery tournament to determine who may be the best fit. Only Odysseus is able to complete the task, and he turns his bow towards the suitors, killing many of them. A battle almost ensues, but Athena puts a stop to it, and the story abruptly ends peacefully. Many scholars object, saying the story originally ended when the couple gets back together. But the accepted conclusion, regardless of whether it was the author's intention, includes the important Greek themes of revenge and resolve.
Elizabeth marries Darcy! Social conventions are thrown to the wind! Our expectations about what does and does not work in a marriage are subverted! Callooh! Callay! But really -- the neat resolve in Austen's books make them no less worthy of literary merit (this should go without saying, but sadly, it doesn't always). Her stories may be tinged by the myriad rom-coms that completely miss the point of them, but the original intention of commenting on the backwards norms of courtship was not only important and revolutionary, but entertaining, and an excellent framework for wittily observing human relationships.
Yes, we tragically must witness the sentencing of Sydney Carton to the guillotine. But his sacrifice is representative of larger themes -- he's choosing to take the fall for the sake of his city and country, and for the sake of Charles Darnay, a man who resembles him physically and whose life he's chosen to save. Carton -- an orphan -- has optimistic thoughts about the distant future, many years after the French Revolution's end. The novel ends with warmly positive words, as thought by Carton shortly before his execution, and gives us one of the most famous lines in Western literature: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Is there a happier ending than Tolkien's conclusion to his beloved trilogy? It's to his advantage that his books could be neatly classified as fantasy -- rather than cataloging the protagonists' interior monologues, he builds a carefully structured world and a series of events that could plausibly be wrapped up in a cleaner way than, say, a meandering walk around Dublin or a meditation on time's relativity. Like Bilbo before them, Frodo and Sam embark on a journey, and return to their humble home. Only The Return of the King has more positive plot points to delight in than the conclusion of The Hobbit: Not only has the War of the Ring come to an end, after Saruman is slain in the Shire, but Aragorn returns to his rightful throne, and Sam marries Rosie Cotton, who he's long had eyes for. Aww.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misidentified the character of Saruman as "Sauron," which is probably the first time that has ever happened.