Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Myth of Happily Ever After

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Allegiant and/or don’t want to know what happens, do NOT read this post! You've been warned.

Real life isn’t a fairy tale, and I believe that literature is allowed to reflect that. In most fairy tales there is a happily ever after, at some point after the main characters get past all their scruples and are together/engaged/married, and ta-da! Happy.
But in the real world, that’s not how it works. Marriage is not the finish line, but a starting point at a life together. And for many people, marriage is not the end goal, but maybe a career or friendship or travel or something else entirely. There will not be a point in life when everything comes together and from that point on, life is good. There will always be bad mixed with good, which is what makes life interesting.
A happily ever after is hard to come by in real life. So why do we require it in our fiction?
I understand that some people want an escape. That’s why we read books that take us to fantasy worlds or far away galaxies or the distant future when no one’s heard of the United States. We read about wizarding wars, Hunger Games and the quest to destroy the one ring in an attempt to escape from our everyday routine of work, eat, sleep.
The worlds to which we escape are not perfect. We wouldn’t want them to be! So, why do we want the endings to be perfect? Why do we require a happily ever after?

"As a reader, I don’t feel a story has an obligation to make me happy. I want stories to show me a bigger world than the one I know… Basically I would argue that books are not primarily in the wish fulfillment business. " –John Green

I was about 100 pages from the end of Allegiant when the dread starting creeping in. Suddenly, the end was upon me, I knew I was reading toward it, and I was afraid for what it would hold for Tris and Tobias. Apparently, I was right to be worried.

What Tris did for Tobias, Caleb and all those she left behind, was noble. It was brave, self-sacrificing and a little crazy. It was Tris. I truly believe she was the only one who could have fought her way into the Weapons Lab and I know she was the only one who could fight the effects of the death serum. In the end, it was a difficult irony that she survived the serum that would have killed everyone else just to be killed by one enemy with a gun.
Yes, life is unfair. Sometimes literature is too. But I know that Tris is the only one who could have completed it all, so that Chicago could be reborn as the fourth city. Don’t get me wrong, I was heartbroken the moment her mother came for her. But I kept reading and when I finished I took a step back and realized something important. In sacrificing herself, Tris saved numerous lives, she rescued a city from the brink of destruction and she pushed back on inequality.
The end of Allegiant was a different kind of ending. It was not a happily ever after, but a thought-provoking closure that was hard to swallow. It was elegant, powerful and (obviously) controversial. However, the lack of a happily ever after will not make me love Tris and Tobias, the Divergent series nor Veronica Roth any less. Because the ending was a reflection of real life. Every now and again, we need some real life in our literature. Occasionally, we need some reality in our escape.

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