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Friday, 3 March 2006
Happy endings

Remember the ending of Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

 “Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess. "

Depressing, isn't it? Hardy got it wrong, it seems, and should have made it a bit jollier. Ben MacIntyre in The Times:

ALL’S WELL that ends well. And if all doesn’t end well, it should be forced to. This is the conclusion of a new survey for World Book Day, which found that most readers would far rather read a novel that ends happily ever after. Pride and Prejudice was voted the happiest ending in literature, followed by To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre.

Only one in fifty readers, it seems, likes to be left tearful at the last page, so the survey also asked which unhappy endings readers would most like to change: Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a clear winner, with readers demanding clemency more than a century after Thomas Hardy sent his tragic heroine to her death. It was also felt that the endings of Wuthering Heights, 1984 and Gone with the Wind were all too depressing, and should be perked up.

In that spirit, therefore, I have begun rewriting great literature to bring it into line with popular sentiment. I, for one, have always found the opening line of Anna Karenina rather a downer. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

When you read that, you just know things are going to go off the rails or, more precisely, on them. Here is something a little more upbeat: “Happy families are just lovely; unhappy families are all the same, and tend to bang on about it.”

Madame Bovary could also do with some cheering up. How about this: Emma marries Charles, a terrifically entertaining and virile country doctor, they have eight children, someone invents Prozac, Emma buys an Aga and wins first prize for home baking at Yonville agricultural fair.

Why stop there? Macbeth is much too depressing. In my version the gentle, unassuming and monosyllabic thane settles down at Cawdor, where Lady Macbeth develops a profitable line in soap that leaves the hands spotless. Hamlet finds a shrink, marries Ophelia and goes into insurance. In the revised A Farewell to Arms, Catherine has a fat and healthy baby, and she and Henry establish a successful pacifist ski resort in the Alps.

Godot finally turns up.

And since we are making unhappy endings cheerier, for the gloomy 2 per cent there are ways of rendering happy endings a little darker, starting with Jane Eyre: The original “My Edward and I, then, are happy” needs another clause “. . . or we would be, if that bloody Bertha hadn’t found the fire escape.”

Pride and Prejudice could be rendered less saccharine by introducing the scene where Darcy explains to Elizabeth that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune still in want of a wife is obviously gay, so he is moving to Tangiers to live with Wickham.

And so on.  Well worth a read and MacIntyre is quite right. On a different note, however, my reason for highlighting the much quoted opening line of Anna Karenina, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, is that it has just struck me, as it has perhaps struck MacIntyre,  that this is absolute nonsense. Of course it's nonsense. Many unhappy families - indeed many unhappy people - are unhappy for drearily similar reasons, as Theodore Dalrymple knows only too well. Or not. And some happy people and families are unusual, perhaps deriving happiness from an original talent, or a rare meeting of minds. Or not. So why do people quote this line so much, as if it were very clever and not rather silly? Because it comes at the beginning of a really good novel, that's why. If it were the first line of a Jeffrey Archer novel, critics would sneer, "The banality of the opening line is staggering. And it goes downhill from there." 

Still, one duff line in such a good book isn't too bad. And he did write War and Peace, so fair play to him. And sucks boo to me, as he might say - in Russian - if he were alive today.

Posted on 03/03/2006 6:17 AM by Mary Jackson
5 Mar 2006
I was always vaguely disappointed that Man Friday wasn't a girl.

5 Mar 2006
Send an emailMary Jackson
Graham, there you go bringing class into it again.

4 Mar 2006
Send an emailGraham
They want to do something about Hamlet as well. All those dead bodies on stage reminds me of a tory conference. As for King Lear, that would surely be brightened up if the Old King didn't snuff it but went off to Vietnam and was nicked for paedophilia instead? And don't get me started on Kafka's metamorphosis: turning into a beatle and getting thrown out with the garbage when he snuffs it? No, no, no. The whole thing cries out for a Busby Berkeley musical number at the end, with massed ranks of stag beatles singing "The cockroach in the Tutti-Frutti Hat". Harold Pinter could learn a little from James Last and his "snappy arrangements" too.

4 Mar 2006
An ending I liked a lot was the ending of Huckleberry Finn. It had the virtue of being both happy and sad. I suppose this must be a general feature of rite of passage or coming of age novels, but I can't immediately think of other examples.

4 Mar 2006
Have you recently read the "Eyre Affair"?

3 Mar 2006
Send an emailEsmerelda Weatherwax
There was a trend to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending; a ballet springs to mind. Which, despite being a sucker for a happy ending, I could never quite get my head round. I think that even at the age of 15, when I wept over the demise of Leonard Whiting, the Romeo of our generation, (Zefferelli's version 1969) I realised that the star crossed lovers were never going to settle down to happy domesticity and death or disaster was their only future. While I could imagine Katherine and Petruchio or Elizabeth and Darcy in companionable old age.

3 Mar 2006
Send an emailRebecca Bynum
Mary, I simply must dissent. I have always loved the opening line of Anna Karenina, not so much for its logic as for what it evokes in the reader.