Why “happily ever after”?

Why does romance require a “happily ever after”? Has it always? What is the relationship between the romantic and the romance? William Gleason, professor of English at Princeton University, shares his thoughts:


Why “happily ever after”?

The RWA requires that their books have an optimistic, emotionally satisfying ending. You need the hero and heroine to come to the end of a journey. And whatever that ending is—whether it is marriage or simply togetherness—it is optimistic and it is satisfying. That fits a large number of love stories we have over time but it doesn’t fit all of them. It’s very interesting to see that definition emerge, and in some ways both reflect the core of a genre, but also leave out some stories that have been very powerful over time. Or leave out contradictions within a genre as it emerges.

One of the areas that I study is late 19th-century American story papers and dime novels, which began to market themselves to women readers and began to imagine what kinds of endings these stories should have. And a lot of them have that emotionally satisfying ending—almost always marriage because it is the 19th century, after all. But some of them have endings that, even within that convention, have a little bit of emotional hesitation about them that makes me think that the genre—even in America, even in the 19th century, even in the most conventional moment of Victorian love—was still not entirely certain that every story had to end this way. And I think we have to go back and try to recover some of that complexity to understand how we got here, but also let us see again what’s even going on now.

Today, the thing that we want—many readers and writers say—is the novel that promises us that happy ending, the novel that delivers either the “happily ever after” or the “happy for now”—two versions of what might deliver something that is conclusive and emotionally satisfying. There are some readers and I think some writers who—and again, it depends what stories we are looking at—who are comfortable with some tension in that formulation.

So, for example, one of the books that I teach in my popular romance class is Gone with the Wind. This is a classic novel of romantic fiction, and many students—almost always women students—come to my class and say, “I took your class because this book is on the syllabus, and because it is the greatest representation of romantic love that I know,” and yet this story does not end in any kind of traditionally happy way—the hero and the heroine are separate—but that novel is constantly bringing them together and then pulling them apart and bringing them back together. Scarlett keeps falling into marriages that prevent her from marrying Rhett at just the wrong time. He always shows up in the next chapter and says, “Now I’m available.” “But I am not.”

The interruptions along the way can script pleasures for us that sometimes might even supersede the pleasure that is resolved at the ending. What the happy ending allows us to do, if we know that it’s going to end in a way that is satisfying, we don’t have to worry that that’s completely in doubt; we might be able to enjoy the sort of “ups and downs” of that relationship in a way that lets us experience the peril as pleasure.

Jennifer Crusie has a wonderful novel Bet Me. The first sentence of the novel is, “Once upon a time. . . “; the last sentence is, “they lived happily ever after.” But this is not simply a one chapter fairytale, this is. . . well, it’s one of those romance novels in which the hero and heroine are constantly being pushed apart and pulled together, and roller coasters are fun for that reason.

Download a transcript.

Share this