Many of you are well aware that classic fairy tales do not have a happy ending. Grimm’s Fairy Tales come from Germany steeped in centuries of conflict and superstition. The mythology of Europe is hardly better–Gods waiting for Ragnarok in Norway. The greatest hero of Ireland, Cuchulain ends his adventure full of arrows. Hercules is killed (accidentally or not) by his wife. Beowulf and Arthur both are killed while killing their heir and son. Even American mythology gets caught up in the dark game–John Henry dies beating the machine and the Mighty Casey struck out. If you think about it, even the Bible is not very optimistic about the end and very few prophets lived a ‘happily ever after’ life.
Somewhere, probably in the early 19th century, we picked up the words “happily ever after.” If you think about the timing of this in world history, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, a War in India, Greek Independence, the Alamo, an impending civil War to free slaves in America, important movements for liberty; innovations in technology–telegraph, camera, the railway, communications–Morse Code, production–cotton gin, iron and steel, all a massive leap for humanity. Some people even call the 19th century ‘the great leap forward.’ Perhaps it was all of this information and ability that let men all over the world believe that a happily ever after was attainable in mortality.
Some of the first, most successful authors in this period were creators of ‘happily ever after,’ even while not having much of one in their own life.
Twain was a pessimist about humanity if ever there was one. He had a hard life and even lost his faith in God, but his stories reflected an optimism for a happy ending that made him one of the most beloved authors of all time. His most memorable characters didn’t suffer a ‘realistic’ end though they did suffer very realistic adventures.
Austen, definitely more famous and beloved now than she was in her own lifetime, wrote stories that reflected the reality of women in society and beneath society in the 18th and 19th century. The stories were definitely more optimistic about the fate of strong and opinionated women than the reality of the time. Austen was unmarried, but her stories were the most optimistic happy endings that even she herself could not expect.
There were still plenty of downers in the 19th century, don’t get me wrong, but it was becoming clear, especially with the success of the dime novel with serial heroes, that people LIKED happy endings.
While it is and was and probably has always been true that there are some people who prefer ‘realism’ in their tales, what we learned from the great success stories that continue to this day, including Disney, Austen, Tokien–stories like Princess of Mars and God Forbid even Twilight, is that people still like happy endings. Maybe they even prefer them. What remains to be seen is if publishers, producers and media will get back to them or hang onto the realism of Jersey Shore. Perhaps if we feed our better angels we won’t need to get into the extremism of fantasy that turns us 50 Shades of Gray.
Related Article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Dear-Science-Fiction-Writers-Stop-Being-So-Pessimistic.html