The Tyranny of the Happy Ending
Continued from previous page
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.
Certainly that’s how I have always felt when reading about Hardy’s Jude Fawley, a stonemason embarked on a hopeless quest to become a scholar, to learn and to understand — as well as to love freely and truly — in a world bent on denying him. The impression left on me by “Jude the Obscure” was not the grinding despair of senseless suffering or the sentimental melancholy of those contemporary literary novels that fetishize grief as a badge of “seriousness” (Jonathan Safran Foer, I’m looking at you). Jude’s sorrows are towering and eternal, whatever their specific historical causes, and if he is not the “highly renowned and prosperous” man that Aristotle deemed the appropriate hero for a tragedy, this is partly Hardy’s point: nobility can be found anywhere.
The truth is that we all lose sometimes, and sooner or later all of us run out of time. Few of us (besides the terminally self-important) want to wallow exclusively in stories that emphasize this fact, but they are nevertheless essential. By not embracing the tragic aspect of life, we not only lie to ourselves, we also begin to lose our ability to see the significance of a human life that transcends mere happiness. By treating art as if its only job is to cheer us up and on, we make it, and ourselves, a lot smaller.