One of the refrains that has come up often in my AP literature class is that students don’t like it when books don’t have happy endings. Interestingly, they tend to bemoan the lack of a happy ending even when there is some happiness at the end. Consider the books we have read/will read…
The Sun Also Rises – Highly ambiguous ending
Pride and Prejudice – Unambiguously happy
A Doll’s House – Ambiguous, leans sad
Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Unambiguously sad
Native Speaker – Ambiguous, leans happy
The Blind Assassin – Ambiguous, leans sad
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Unambiguously happy
Interestingly, only three of the seven books we’re reading are plainly sad and two of those contain a fair bit of ambiguity, and that’s where I think the problem really is. See, here’s the thing. As much as they complain about unhappy endings, my students liked Tess. They liked Tess because they got to feel sad for all the right reasons. What they don’t like are books that leave them without answers.
I’ve heard complaints from people beyond my students that “all literary fiction is sad/depressing,” and I just don’t see how this is can possibly be true. I think what is more accurate to say is that literary fiction is complicated. Take Native Speaker, which my class just finished…
When the book ends, the main character is unequivocally in a better place than he was at the beginning of the book. Indeed, he has made a real transformation. However, a lot of bad stuff has gone down to bring about that transformation and so, at the end, we are left searching for meaning. We don’t understand precisely what this was all about and we’re not sure how we feel about it.
I don’t think that’s depressing at all. In fact, it’s what makes literature worthwhile. I wonder how much, when people bemoan that literature is “depressing” what they are really saying is that it doesn’t give us answers. People aren’t unequivocally good or bad. The good guys don’t always end up happy. The bad guys don’t always get what they deserve. It’s complicated and not always satisfying in a “chocolate is delicious!” kind of way.
I often bemoan pulp, and this is why. Pulp, at its heart, is titillation. Those who read pulp are subsisting on the literary equivalent of dessert. I like chocolate cake as much as the next person (more, probably), but I know it’s not something I should eat all the time, and I often derive just as much immediate satisfaction (and more long-term satisfaction) from a delicious and complex dinner.
So, to anyone who dislikes literature because it’s depressing, I have a question: is it really a happy ending you want, or is it simplicity?