A happy ending is an ending of the plot of a work of fiction in which
almost everything turns out for the best for the protagonists, their
sidekicks, and almost everyone except the villains.
In storylines where the protagonists are in physical danger, a happy
ending mainly consists of their survival and successful completion of
the quest or mission; where there is no physical danger, a happy
ending may be lovers consummating their love despite various factors
which may have thwarted it. A considerable number of storylines
combine both situations. In Steven Spielberg's version of "War of the
Worlds", the happy ending consists of three distinct elements: The
protagonists all survive the countless perils of their journey;
humanity as a whole survives the alien invasion; and the protagonist
father regains the respect of his estranged children. The plot is so
constructed that all three are needed for the audience's feeling of
satisfaction in the end.
A happy ending is epitomized in the standard fairy tale ending phrase,
"happily ever after" or "and they lived happily ever after". (One
Thousand and One Nights has the more restrained formula "they lived
happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness"
(i.e. Death); likewise, the Russian versions of fairy tales typically
end with "they lived long and happily, and died together on the same
day".) Satisfactory happy endings are happy for the reader as well, in
that the characters he or she sympathizes with are rewarded. However,
this can also serve as an open path for a possible sequel. For
example, in the 1977 film Star Wars,
Luke Skywalker defeats the
Galactic Empire by destroying the Death Star; however, the story's
happy ending has consequences that follow in The Empire Strikes Back.
The concept of a permanent happy ending is specifically brought up in
Stephen King fantasy/fairy tale novel
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Eyes of the Dragon which
has a standard good ending for the genre, but simply states that
"there were good days and bad days" afterwards.
2.1 William Shakespeare
3 See also
A happy ending only requires that the main characters be all right.
Millions of innocent background characters can die, but as long as the
characters that the reader/viewer/audience cares about survive, it can
still be a happy ending.
Roger Ebert comments ironically in his review
of Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow: "Billions of people may
have died, but at least the major characters have survived. Los
Angeles is leveled by multiple tornadoes, New York is buried under ice
and snow, the United Kingdom is flash-frozen, and lots of the Northern
Hemisphere is wiped out for good measure. Thank god that Jack, Sam,
Laura, Jason and Dr. Lucy Hall survive, along with Dr. Hall's little
The presence of a happy ending is one of the key points that
distinguish melodrama from tragedy. In certain periods, the endings of
traditional tragedies such as
Macbeth or Oedipus Rex, in which most of
the major characters end up dead, disfigured, or discountenanced, have
been actively disliked. In the Seventeenth Century, the Irish author
Nahum Tate sought to improve William Shakespeare's
King Lear in his
own heavily modified version in which Lear survives and Cordelia
marries Edgar. Tate's version dominated performances for a century and
a half, Shakespeare's original nearly forgotten. Both David Garrick
and John Philip Kemble, while taking up some of Shakespeare's original
text, kept Tate's happy ending.
Edmund Kean played
King Lear with its
tragic ending in 1823, but failed and reverted to Tate's crowd-pleaser
after only three performances. Only in 1838 did
William Macready at
Covent Garden successfully restore Shakespeare's original tragic end
– Helen Faucit's final appearance as Cordelia, dead in her father's
arms, became one of the most iconic of Victorian images and the play's
tragic end was finally accepted by the general public. Most subsequent
critics have not found Tate's amendments an improvement, and welcomed
the restoration of Shakespeare's original. Happy endings have also
been fastened – equally, with no lasting success – to Romeo and
Juliet and Othello. There is no universally accepted definition of
what a happy ending is; such definitions can considerably vary with
time and cultural differences. An interpretation of The Merchant of
Venice's forced conversion of
Shylock to Christianity is that it was
intended as a happy ending. As a Christian,
Shylock could no longer
impose interest, undoing his schemes in the play and ending the
rivalry between him and Antonio, but more important, contemporary
audiences would see becoming a Christian as a means to save his soul
(cf. Romans 11:15). In later times, Jews (and non-Jewish opponents of
anti-Semitism) strongly objected to that ending, regarding it as
depicting a victory for injustice and oppression and as pandering to
the audience's prejudices.
A Times review of
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold strongly
John le Carré
John le Carré for failing to provide a happy ending, and
gave unequivocal reasons why in the reviewer's opinion (shared by many
others) such an ending is needed: "The hero must triumph over his
enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale. If
the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story."
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw had to wage an uphill struggle against audiences,
as well as some critics, persistently demanding that his "Pygmalion"
have a happy ending, i.e. that Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolitle
would ultimately get married. To Shaw's great chagrin, Herbert
Beerbohm Tree who presented the play in London's West End in 1914 had
sweetened the ending and told Shaw: "My ending makes money; you ought
to be grateful. Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot." The
irritated Shaw added a postscript essay, "'What Happened
Afterwards", to the 1916 print edition, for inclusion with
subsequent editions, in which he explained precisely why in his view
it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting
married. Nevertheless, audiences continued wanting a happy ending also
for later adaptations such as the musical and film "My Fair Lady".
In numerous cases,
Hollywood studios adapting literary works into film
added a happy ending which did not appear in the original.
C. S. Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen has a British couple,
stranded in Africa during the First World War, hatch a plot to sink a
German gunboat; they make an enormous, dedicated struggle, with
boundless effort and sacrifice, but at the last moment their quest
ends with failure and futility. In the 1951 film adaptation they
succeed, and get to see the German boat sink (just in time to save
them from being hanged by the Germans).
Truman Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's ended with the
main character, Holly Golightly, going her own solitary way and
disappearing from the male protagonist's life. In the 1961 film made
on its base she finally accepts the love he offers her and the film
ends with their warmly embracing, oblivious of a pouring rain.
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid ends with the
protagonist mermaid making a noble sacrifice, resigned to seeing her
beloved prince marrying another woman. In the 1989 Disney adaptation,
the mermaid does get to happily marry her prince. Disney later added a
sequel, obviously impossible for the Andersen original, focused on the
child born of that marriage.
Once upon a time
^ Ebert's review of The Day After Tomorrow
^ The Times, September 13, 1968.
^ Evans, T.F. (ed.) (1997).
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw (The Critical Heritage
Series). ISBN 0-415-15953-9, pp. 223–30.
^ "From the Point of View of A Playwright," by Bernard Shaw, collected
in Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Some Memories of Him and His Art, Collected
by Max Beerbohm (1919). London: Hutchinson. Versions at Text Archive
^ Shaw, Bernard, edited by Dan H. Laurence. Collected Letters vol.
^ Shaw, G.B. (1916). Pygmalion. New York: Brentano. Sequel: What
Happened Afterwards. Bartleby: Great Books Online.
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