On Happy Endings or the Lack Thereof

I recently read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time and I was gutted. Unlike, most USians, who’ve at least some inkling of what to expect from a Wharton book I had zero expectations or, rather, zero correct expectations. Wharton is not nearly so well known here as she is in her native country. Those Aussies who do know Wharton tend to know her from the Hollywood adaptations of her novels. I have managed to see none of them. So, I went in to the House of Mirth blind, like a lamb to the slaughter. Let me tell you: There was NO mirth.

I also went in kind of expecting her to be the USA’s Jane Austen. I have no idea why. It was a wrong expectation. For starters there was no happy ending. It was the bleakest most horrible ending imaginable. And the awfulness started about half way through the book, which is when I first started weeping. But it kept getting worse. And worse and even worse. Until it had the worst ending of all time and I was crying so hard snot was pouring out of my nose.

Thanks a bunch, Edith Wharton! If you weren’t already dead . . .

Have I mentioned that it’s a wonderful book? That Wharton is a brilliant writer? That Lily Bart’s dilemma is what ties her to Jane Austen? For there is a connection even across an ocean and nearly a century: their books are about the same matter: what are the options for women of a certain class? Women who are expected to marry “well”?

Marriage, or dependence on relatives, or ruin, or attempting to work at crappy jobs despite never being trained to be anything but ornamental. It’s grim. And Wharton shows just how grim.

I will definitely be reading more Wharton but I’m not exactly looking forward to it. Miserable endings are difficult. And I say that as someone whose has many favourite books that do not end at all well1 I have to steel myself to read them or I have to be in the mood for a good cry.

There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the death of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow. Even though it’s not real. Movies, theatre and television never affect me so badly.2 But there’s something about the intimacy and privacy of reading that increases the emotional impact of a story.

Which is why I understand those readers who won’t read books with unhappy endings. I am in total sympathy with the need for reading that doesn’t take you to a scary, uncomfortable, or painful place. I was not quite in the right place for House of Mirth. I imagine it will be some time before I am brave enough to read it again.

How about youse lot? How many of you need a happy ending? Do any of you read the end first to see if it’s safe?

  1. To be expected when two of your favourite writers are Toni Morrison and Jean Rhys. []
  2. Though they all make me cry on occasion. I am a massive sook. []


  1. Christopher Barzak on #

    No need for a happy ending here. Most of my favorite books are tragedies. I like a good happy ending, but I think happy endings are harder to convince me of. They seem to be narratives that end when the bloom is still on, rather than following their stories to the point when the bloom is off. Either way, I’m fine, as long as it’s an earned ending that feels true. But tragic ends get me often.

    Wharton is one of my favorite writers. If you decide to keep reading her, I highly suggest The Age of Innocence, and then her novella Ethan Frome. Along with the House of Mirth, those two works make up my three favorite Wharton narratives. You can also find a collection called The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. Yes, Wharton was not just a writer documenting class and how it worked in old New York and occasionally New England, but also a fine ghost storyteller. Several stories in that collection were really creepy and feel nearly alien in some respects, due to passage of time and telling.

    If you enjoyed reading about Lily Bart’s problems, you might love the Countess Olenska, in Age of Innocence. She’s one of my all-time favorite characters, hands down. The Scorcese adaptation of the novel is very well done as well.

  2. JJ on #

    THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is my favourite Wharton novel, but a lot of my friends love THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (that one also won the Pulitzer). THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is marginally less tragic (*spoiler* No one dies!) and Ellen Olenska is a woman much more in control of her destiny (although she has the means). What I love about THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is that it examines a MAN’S place in that society–that of Newland Archer–and how it can trap men as much as it traps women.

    I love, love, love Wharton. The novel of manners is one of my favourite “genres” of fiction.

  3. mb on #

    I love House of Mirth, so I guess that means I don’t require happy endings. What I do hope for, though, is endings that are RIGHT. Happy endings need to be the right happy ending for the characters, tragic ones need to be meaningful.

  4. What Now? on #

    _The House of Mirth_ is the most gutting of Wharton’s novels. None of them has a happy ending, but mostly in a realistic, “well, life isn’t a fantasy, is it?” sort of way. Only _The House of Mirth_ makes me cry as you were describing. (A friend of mine named her son Seldon, which I found an inexplicable decision given his behavior in this novel!)

  5. Ellen on #

    I don’t require a happy ending – many of my favorite books don’t have one – but I do tend to get very upset with unhappy endings in books/movies/what have you. That said, I don’t cry in movies or at sad plays, even when I’m depressed. But some books have actually made me tear up (most recently the Time Traveler’s Wife. Which I loved to death, but oh man 🙁 )

  6. ella144 on #

    I also highly recommend AGE OF INNOCENCE. Loved, loved, loved it. I cried, but they were sweet, tragic tears, not out-and-out bawling. It is a lovely and brilliant book. JJ described it well in the above comment.

  7. Kelly McCullough on #

    My wife had almost exactly the same experience with House of Mirth, though afterward she reached the conclusion that she would never again under any circumstances read an Edith Wharton novel.

  8. Laurie on #

    Depends on several factors for me, including just how good the book is, what kind of unhappy ending it is, etc., but by and large, I don’t deal well with ’em, no sir. I definitely won’t accept an unhappy ending in my fluffy “it’s just for fun” type reading and watching – those tend to engage more of my emotions and less of my analytical brain, and thus my emotions are completely crushed – but I can sometimes deal with it in works with a somewhat detached feel to them, that grip my emotions less and my brain more. I can also deal with it much better in works where you know it’s inevitable from the start, like say, John Gardner’s Grendel.

    That all said, I do think an ending should be the necessary one, whether it’s happy or not. I just probably won’t be able to read it if it’s the latter.

  9. Sara on #

    For some reason I cannot stand unhappy love stories. In general I don’t seek out unhappy endings in other genre’s, but books with strong romantic themes I ALWAYS read the ending or find it out before I read the book — I can’t stand being heartbroken that way.

    I have the same problems with movies, although I find them less traumatic. I saw Titanic, cried, and resented every tear.

    I find this aspect of myself strange, but I’ve learned to live with me.

    On the other hand, I love bittersweet endings in any genre (I love Raymond Chandler). The characters get what they want but are sadder and wiser for what they had to go through.

  10. Jennifer on #

    I was an English major in college. All throughout school, and I’m counting from middle school on, we were assigned depressing reading on a near-constant basis. I’m amazed that I still like reading, and I can’t blame any kid who hates it when all they ever read in school is depressing. I think Sarah Plain and Tall (hated it, but it doesn’t end in carnage) was the lone happy book in middle school, Jane Eyre was the lone happy ending book I ever got to read in high school, and Emma in college. That was IT.

    Now that I’m out of school? I very rarely read anything depressing, and if I did it was an accident. Real life is enough of a downer without choosing to make myself depressed by my reading material. I did read Time Traveler’s Wife and it’s one of my favorites, but dear god, had I known ahead of time I wouldn’t have read it. It has my two worst depressing pet peeves ever, oy.

    In general, I’d rather read crap with a happy ending than Deep Thoughts By A Brilliant Writer that make me want to drink myself to death after reading their book. Bleah. I am so not literary.

  11. Julia Rios on #

    Like you, I have to be in the right place emotionally to take on unhappy endings. They can be really good, but, right now, for instance, I’m on a strict comfort reading regimen. I’m just not up to being heartbroken at the moment. And yeah, ouch, going into Wharton expecting Austen sounds like a recipe for disaster. Poor you! Even though the connections are there insofar as the social commentary goes, Wharton is in a completely different reading category for me. One that needs careful treading.

  12. Megan on #

    I agree with mb, I need to feel like the ending was “right.” I’ve noticed that generally I tend to gravitate towards things that have more bittersweet endings, like LOTR, Firefly/Serenity, and Scott’s Midnighters. I love the endings to all of these even if they do make me feel sad, because at least I have a sense of closure and I’m satisfied with the ending because the characters ended up in the right place.

  13. Ashley on #

    I love Edith Wharton, but I agree, she can be extremely depressing. If you want to read a happier Edith Wharton book, I’d recommend Glimpses of the Moon (two gentile-but-poor people decide to get married and live off their wealthy friends’ wedding gifts and then plan to divorce and each marry someone more suitable when the gifts run out) and The Custom of the Country, which isn’t exactly happy, but the protagonist is so horrible you don’t feel at all sad when bad things happen to her.

  14. Cat Moleski on #

    I have to admit, I like happy endings, but I don’t mind sadness or death in a book as long as it makes sense. I hate death and violence that seem to be there because the author thinks, or their sphere of influence tells them, that their writing needs to be darker or more serious. If I feel cheated that way by an author, I may never read anything they write again.

  15. Tamara on #

    I absolutely require a happy ending. Warn me ahead of time if there isn’t one and I won’t read.

  16. Edi on #

    You have to expect good things of those named “Edith”!

    Merry Christmas!

  17. Gillian A on #

    I don’t absolutely require a happy ending, but I strongly prefer one (or a bittersweet one). If it’s a tragic ending, I probably have to read the book the first time without knowing that.

    I have gradually developed a real dread of the suffering of a book’s protagonist, where the anticipation is far worse than the reality most of the time. This works whereby if the book jacket, reviews etc have convinced me that (say) protagonist is falsely accused I can hardly bear to read the book, dreading the false accusation. But then, often it’s not that bad at all when I get there.

    I’m beginning to think I’ll have to completely avoid all spoilers in future if I want to keep reading, because I sometimes pause for several days before carrying on with a book if I think I’ve reached the part with the suffering. Needless to say I hate the writing advice that goes ‘think of the very worst thing you could do your protagonist’. I just don’t like too much angst in my reading I guess.

  18. cristina on #

    See, I don’t NEED a happy ending, but I usually EXPECT one. I suppose that’s why unhappy endings shock me so much. I always hope the story will somehow have a happy end. And after I’ve recovered from tears and bits of anger and my face has stopped being red and swollen –I don’t mind unhappy endings, as long as they go with the story.

  19. Lorel on #

    I love both miserable and happy endings. Feeling emotion is what’s important. But the books with the happy endings I read over and over again 🙂

  20. Justine on #

    Wow. This was a lot of smart and interesting comments to wake up to. I started to respond but it got too long. See? You all inspired a whole new post.

  21. Meg on #

    Haha, Jennifer,
    I’m a literature and writing major and your comment about literary types drinking themselves to death over tragic stories rung very true. A few years ago, my American literature professor assigned us Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and when he came into class on discussion day, he told us that rereading the novel had so devastated him that he “just had to” drink a bunch of whiskey. Incidentally, he was also the teacher who assigned House of Mirth.
    I don’t know that I choose them consciously, but I seem to be drawn to books that are wrought with trauma and heartbreak. I probably like the catharsis.
    As a Wharton fan and heartbreak junkie, I also really like Ethan Frome which is very different from House of Mirth yet similarly devestating.

  22. Alpha Lyra on #

    I very much prefer happy endings, and I normally stick to genres where a happy ending is either guaranteed (romance) or at least very likely (SFF). I avoid literary novels because they all end tragically. I tend not to re-read books with tragic endings.

    Bittersweet endings can be okay for me–unhappy endings that have a touch of joy to them, a touch of sweetness. The Time Traveler’s Wife is an example. I’ll even reread that one.

  23. Josh on #

    Love miserable endings, but less than I used to: as an emo twenty-something, I got very excited about Philip Dick and Bernard Malamud for having written novels that left me paralyzed with despair for hours. But a couple of nights ago I read a Wilkie Collins novella and a Nalo Hopkinson novel, and they both ended happily and kicked ass.

    Let me second the recommendation of Custom of the Country as a great Wharton Novel. Summer is a good one too.

  24. Monica on #

    I really like her short story “Roman Fever”–it’s an interesting companion to James’s _Daisy Miller_. For me, a happy ending (like all endings, but happy endings especially) has to be earned–happy endings easily ring false to me.

    I’m taking a graduate seminar in Wharton this spring (taught by Mary Papke, with whom I believe you’re familiar); I’ll now be paying attention to what kinds of endings she has overall.

  25. Nalo on #

    Despair I have lots of in real life. Don’t need to seek it out in fiction, too. On the other hand, I’m more suspicious of than convinced by endings that are all syllabub and candy floss. So maybe I go for bittersweet endings, or take-the-bad-along-with-the-good endings.

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