question of the day: Is our storytelling culture tyrannized by the “happy ending”?

Disney Beauty and the Beast

Laura Miller at Salon wondered recently whether we’re missing something essential from our stories today:

These days, it’s the rare filmmaker who chooses to adapt a classic novel in the tragic vein — the current version of “Anna Karenina” is a notable exception. Whether it’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House” or Gaskell’s cozy Cranford stories, the source material almost always ends in heartwarming reconciliation and at least one wedding.

When it comes to popular entertainment, we live in a post-tragic age. There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, of course, and both Dickens and Austen wrote in literary genres that call for just such a conclusion. But romance and comedy are only one portion of the literary and dramatic spectrum, and neglecting the more somber, less reassuring reaches of that spectrum only leaves us with a thinner culture overall. It was not ever thus, either: Tragedy was so popular in 1849 New York that a riot broke out between the fans of two rival actors, Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, over which man excelled at portraying such Shakespearean heroes as Hamlet and Macbeth. By the time the melee was over, 25 people had been killed.

Some aspects of the human experience can only be addressed in a tragic mode, and the truth of “Romeo and Juliet” — that the intransigence of elders often leads to the sacrifice of youth — is one of those aspects. The tragic Victorian novels of Eliot and Hardy deal with, among other subjects, the restrictions that class and gender roles impose on heroes and heroines who are capable of much more than their allotted place in society permits. Seeing the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of Maggie Tulliver (in “The Mill on the Floss”) and Jude Fawley (in “Jude the Obscure”) being crushed is agonizing, but providing either character with a miraculous escape from that fate would render the novels themselves pointless. Their point is precisely that sometimes the best people will fail, and fail utterly.

“Too depressing” is the verdict usually leveled at such books. It’s ironic that in a culture swimming with inane, pep-talk nostrums about the triumph of the human spirit and the importance of following your dreams, we have such a hard time seeing what’s affirmative about the best tragedies. They show us that a great spirit is still great even when it doesn’t win, that aspiration, courage and hope, however doomed, are virtues in their own right. That’s why reading (or seeing) “Hamlet” isn’t actually depressing, although everyone dies in the end and the hero doesn’t even get the girl. Hamlet’s moral struggle has meaning despite all that.

And of course when it comes to new stories created for mass consumption, the happy ending rules. We cannot say that it’s simply human nature that we want a happy ending, because clearly such was not always demanded by audiences. So what happened? How and why did this change?

Is our storytelling culture tyrannized by the “happy ending”?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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