Let’s begin with a story.
Once upon a time, a young man (we’ll call him Shmitzwilliam Farcy) and a young woman (Belizabeth Shmennet) hated one another. Only, over the course of time, they actually came to love each other—go figure—and to overcome the personal barriers standing between them and a life of deep mutual respect and affection. Wonderful! Too bad poor Shmitzwilliam was obligated to marry his sickly cousin and too much of a weenie to stand up to his crazy rich aunt! He ditched Belizabeth, and they both died unloved and unfulfilled.
I love a good love story. Don’t you?
I’ve been reading lately about Jane’s happy endings. Verdict: there are a lot of them. As far as her star couples (I’m tempted to say “ships”; thanks for that, Miss Osborne) are concerned, Jane deals exclusively in true and lasting love between the people that deserve it most; any hints of final sadness are relegated to side-dish relationships (Mr. Collins/Charlotte Lucas, for example; possibly also Lydia/Wickham) and not much mentioned in the first place. How does this consistent promise of happiness play in our postmodern culture, where we often doubt the depth of stories where everything works out well? Can we trust the truth of all this happily ever after?
I’m currently re-reading Persuasion (because it’s wonderful, and because there’s nothing like running an Austen website to remind you of all the Austen you don’t remember), and let me be clear: Persuasion requires a happy ending. The expectation of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s love resuming after all these years gives the novel shape; without it, there can be no passage of time or change of cirumstance, only chapter after chapter after chapter of resigned pining, forever and ever, amen. In that case, it’s not so much a story as a meditation on grief and on unmet needs—we have to believe that Anne would continue to soldier on, but this is a woman still mourning (at heart, if not publicly) after eight years. Something has to change; the sadness and the tedium of all that pining, without the relief of a happy ending, would kill the reader if not the characters. Certainly people do write novels meditating on lost love, on loves that are never found, but even they have more going on than Persuasion minus the final, happy reunion.
It’s unclear whether any of Jane’s other novels would do any better with a sad or ambiguous ending—if Emma Woodhouse were required to work further to earn Mr. Knightley’s love, for example, or if Bingley and Jane never quite got their timing straight. Perhaps, after all, none of Jane’s novels can have ambiguous endings. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an ambiguous ending with Jane—considering the emotional and sometimes practical stakes that her heroines face, maybe anything less than a happy ending must be considered a tragedy. (In Jane’s time, anyway, ambiguity was not a popular choice for endings—emotionally mixed finales wouldn’t come into vogue until the advent of the Modernists and their fragmented, topsy-turvy ways. Until then, the choices are pretty much Austen happy or Hardy crushing.)
In any case, happy endings aren’t totally the point for Jane—her best work is not in the end (delightful though it may be), but in the means. She’s an observer and a cataloguer of love and its power to change people, and happy endings provide some security for that study—a safe place from which to examine the psychology of love. (She could, of course, have written about the psychology of sorrow instead—of loss and permanent loneliness. After all, Jane herself never married. But would this have shown more depth than a consistent observation of success in love? Doubtful; also, far less fun to read.) If Jane’s heroines don’t end up with the “right” guy, the entire tone of her work–of all her works, collectively—changes; if Anne, for example, finally recovers from her original attachment to Wentworth and learns to love herself for the capable and independent woman she is, then it’s not a study in love and strength of character anymore. It’s a coming-of-age story. If Mr. Knightley moves on, unable to handle Emma’s consistent brattery, that‘s a cautionary tale, not a meditation on love and personal change. They might be fine stories, and they might appeal to our modern sense that everything shouldn’t wrap up so neatly, but they lack the basic frame for observing the human heart, as Jane does.
Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’m going to go read the end of Pride and Prejudice, just to make myself feel better.