I’ve been struggling to understand the demand and expectation of Happy Ever After’s in certain genres of popular fiction and film. Sarah Frantz wrote a post that may have — at long last — flipped on the light switch for me. The boldface in the quote below is mine:
“Pamela Regis has brilliantly delineated the eight necessary narrative events that make a romance a romance: society defined, the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, the point of ritual death, the recognition, the betrothal. The HEA is important there, of course, as the Betrothal, but the other elements are as important to the romance’s journey.”
It was the word ‘journey’ that clicked for me. I saw a story structure similar to that of the hero’s journey, or monomyth, as identified by Joseph Campbell and so many others. It’s the structure of many myths, folklore and faerie tales. Journey chart courtesy of Wikipedia Commons:
What I’ve learned from Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment is that these ancient stories in their original oral tradition were more than simple entertainments. They were lessons meant to seep into the subconscious of the listener — beginning in early childhood, continuing throughout adulthood — benign instructions on how to be a worthy human being and the prices one must be willing to pay for anything, from arrogance and selfishness all the way to happiness and love.
In re-reading The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock again I see the necessity of the journey structure. Along a journey of any kind, growth — the ability to adapt to new situations — is vital if the journey is to be endured and survived. If she’s to survive and succeed, that is, attain her goals, she must gain new skills and new knowledge, particularly self knowledge — or languish in failure.
The heroine’s journey differs significantly from that of her counterpart. There is a time when she must go underground, into the forbidden vaults of her subconscious. There is a time of forgetting, so she may learn or re-discover without the burden of painful memories or societal impediments. She must become lost in the woods before she can find herself, her truest self.
In her post Ms. Frantz mentioned a series of novels she’d given up on because the main character suddenly ceased to grow and develop. Stasis leads to stagnation. Stagnation leads to rot, ruin and death — of the individual, of the community. No growth in the characters means no examples for the readers to incorporate into their own lives.
A prior post by Laura Vivanco on what the reader brings to the story tells me that people — particularly women — in the twenty-first century are still looking for guidance and instruction on how to live. Without being preached at, and without being made to feel bad, stupid, or dirty.
Is this because in the New World we’re deprived of the wisdom of our elders? We’re segregated by age by the bombastic influences of the media, and brainwashed into disregarding what our elders say or write. We’re encouraged, urged even, to warehouse our elders, cutting ourselves off from their wisdom and their experiences.
In the absence of that wisdom — wisdom borne of mistakes and sad consequences — we’re destined to travel in those same pain-filled wheel ruts. The paths to success and happiness are lost.
In ancient societies the elders were the keepers and tellers of stories. But in the New World we’ve allowed ourselves to be cheated of those riches. Unconsciously we turn to stories contrived by strangers — movies, novels, and sophomoric entertainments designed for mass consumption based on the lowest common denominator, bleached of all nutrition and dictated by advertising sponsors. Instead of a thick, hearty stew seasoned with generations of adventure, humor, and wisdom, we get cotton candy — volume without mass, sweetness without substance.
Such emptiness could cause a gnawing, unconscious hunger for the Happy Ending and the story journeys leading to it. And many come to story time certain they’re entitled to Happy Ever After’s.
There’s a silent compact between writers and readers. While the writer has certain obligations to readers, readers also have obligations to the writer and they must remember they entered into this compact willingly.
Readers are sometimes indignant over how writers choose to present — and end — their stories. If readers pushed themselves to look beneath that shining veneer of the promised Happy Ending they might find something richer and more rewarding beyond a mere moment’s gratification. But they’ll never know if they don’t look. If you want buried treasure you have to dig.
The ancients knew that happiness must be earned. It’s all there in their stories.