“And they lived happily ever after.”
A common, if trite and clichéd, ending to a fairy tale. It paints a picture in the reader’s mind that nothing untoward will happen to your beloved characters after this point in the narration. Usually, the characters have suffered enough through the stories. In the Grimm version of the fairy tales, the witch tries to kill Snow White not once, but three times and Rapunzel is left wandering a desert. In Anderson, the Little Mermaid does not capture the prince’s heart.
Let’s dispel this common misunderstanding right off the bat. Not all fairy tales end happy. The aforementioned Little Mermaid and the Little Match Girl both do not end happy by anyone’s definition of the term. The phrase is usually not found on the end of the traditional interpretations of the stories either. My imagination pictures a Middle Ages parent, exhausted from a day’s work in the field, finishing the fairy tale, and the wide-eyed children asking for more. Knowing this is coming, the parent simply says “And they lived happily ever after” to cut short the requests for the story to continue. It also can be a reassurance to the children that their favorite protagonist did not suffer any longer.
Let’s explore the theme of happily-ever-after endings in fairy tales. Is it possible to have an ending that both is happy and makes for a good story? I ask this question in light of our post-modern, information-overload world. The top three stories on CNN the morning I wrote this was a meteorite may have struck Cuba, a child abuse article, and a FedEx worker found dead of the cold (ironically calling to mind the Little Match Girl). Fortunately, no one was hurt in the meteorite story, but people two hundred years ago never worried about meteorites hitting the Earth as much as we do because we simply have more information.
Philosophically, if our lives end in tragedy (death) then how could there be happy endings? As an example, if Snow White were a real person, we know that she must die of something. Pulmonary tuberculosis, or consumption as it was commonly called in the past, might have killed her. Perhaps Sleeping Beauty was murdered in a political intrigue that sought to overthrow her husband, and Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” depicts a ticked-off Giant’s wife searching for Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) for revenge.
Are we allowed to write happy endings given what we know? Most people say “for children, it’s acceptable.” But don’t children suffer? Some children are present when their parents die. Children are abused and treated as non-persons every day. Why do they get an exclusive on happy endings? I reject that happy endings must be limited to children’s literature only. If we are to accept them, we must accept them for all ages.
I think the problem exists in one letter of the phrase “and they lived happily ever after.” The “d” in “lived” is, unfortunately, the hardest part to swallow. It implies the character is dead and every event after the story was a happy one. Despite a world telling us different, we do have happy endings. Marriage, births, adoption, retirement, vacations all are examples of events that, in general, are generally viewed favorably. The moment your first child speaks, the welcoming of a new pet, the purchase of a new home may all be happy events. I’m writing of a joy-level of happiness, but I am happy when I wake up on a October day and it’s foggy outside. Saturday mornings and Sunday evening dinner both make me happy. But not ever-after, you say. No, I suffer like everyone else, but it’s the moments of happiness that make the suffering worthwhile. And sometimes when I suffer, I’m still happy. When I brave the weather to pick up my son from college, I’m fairly worried. It’s a subtle form of suffering but it’s worth it to greet my son at the end of the journey.
Can a story end happy? I say yes. You can end a story on a high point for the characters. Our lives are not composed of a series of low points. Happiness exists in moments, and those moments are significant.
But can we have a happily-ever-after ending? I would say it’s possible if your outlook on life at the end of it is “overall, I had a good life.” I’ve met people who have endured monumental suffering, yet they will tell you that overall, life has been good to them. The tragedy at the end of life, death, is not such a tragedy when viewed this way, even for those who don’t believe they are transitioning to another form of life.
Picture Snow White again, dying of tuberculosis on a divan. While she’s in agony, she looks around and spies her faithful husband, her seven companions, an enemy-turned-ally huntsman. She’s experienced romance, friendship, safety, loyalty, and many happy memories. The power and riches won’t save her now. Those things don’t matter. She realizes it’s the quality of the relationships that matter in her last minutes before death. She knows she has lived a happily-ever-after life as she closes her eyes and relinquishes her life.