Happily ever after.
You know the phrase. You've probably heard it thousands of times. It may be the three most popular words to end a children's story with. Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. They and many more female literary characters have found their prince and, yes, lived happily ever after.
Those stories are regarded as fantasies. For them, living "happily ever after" is not so much a plot device, but a staple.
Tristan and Isolde
Rose and Jack
Antony and Cleopatra
Ennis and Jack
Romeo and Juliet
For those ill-fated star-crossed lovers, not so much.
Those stories, on paper, on stage, and in cinema, those are the ones we take seriously when we are adults. These are the love stories that matter. Who cares about Prince Charming past age 13? Not many. The tragic love stories, that's the real stuff. They can be both fiction and nonfiction, but most are not considered fantasy. Sure, when you are reading and watching these tales of impossible love and tragic circumstances, you hope against hope that so-and-so won't actually die, you hope for a happy ending. Why couldn't they just let him/her LIVE?! But the truth is, we don't want the happy endings. The tales of dangerous romance between members of two families - or nations - in a heated rivalry or two homosexual ranch hands who could be drug to death by homophobes if anybody found out that they were "stemming the rose," these are the stories that captivate us the most. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German-born philologist and philosopher, was a big defender of tragedy as the highest form of aesthetics. He was a bit crazy and that may be an extreme way of looking at tragedy, but at least to some degree it rings true in our society. We are in love with tragedy; we love tragic movies.
Why are love stories where the characters live happily ever after so rejected as perfunctory? Why are they, by and large, considered the cake and not the steak? Why do we take more seriously tales of misery and suffering? Why do we find tragedy more aesthetically pleasing for literary couplings than happiness?
To answer those questions, let's look at a few things about humanity, a mixture of things we all know and a theory of mine. No I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist with published papers within those scholarships, but it is important to understand that we are all, to some degree or another, experts on humanity since we are human beings ourselves. And this makes almost anybody's opinions and observations on our humanity credible.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That's what we all have the right to in the United States Constitution (unless due process of law, of course). Why are we always in the pursuit of happiness, but never seem to quite catch it? Why is contentment so elusive? Sure some people are happier than others, but why, no matter how well off we are, do we have varying degrees of dissatisfaction? Even Donald Trump has things to complain about.
Yes, there are people who will tell you "Hey, I have a happy life." He or she loves the job, the kids, they couldn't ask for anything more. There are exceptions to every rule and those people are exceptional, perhaps, or maybe they're embellishing their happiness. There could be deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction that they don't even want to acknowledge themselves. But that's just speculation.
What I am fairly certain of is that nobody can be happy all the time. If anybody is, there's a major malfunction there. It's like when George Carlin, in his bit about how ridiculous some common expressions are, talks about being "more than happy." "This sounds to me like a dangerous mental condition!" The same could be said for anybody who is happy all the time, not any better than somebody being angry - or sad - all of the time. Somebody who claims to be happy is more than likely speaking in a general sense, i.e. their life doesn't suck.
The truth is, no matter how much we'd like to think to the contrary, in our natural state, we're just melancholy. Despite all the efforts of restaurants, bars, especially theme parks - as well as the Corporations with their advertisements urging all of their products to be FUN in some way and to buy them and have FUN and BE HAPPY, most moments in our daily lives are pretty quiet. We're not happy, sad, mad, nor glad. We're not supposed to be constantly having fun or seeking gratification. When we're having those quiet moments of reflection while walking down the sidewalk, looking into the windows of the shops and diners and whatnot, we're just melancholy until we see something that excites us.
When somebody asks us how we are, what do we usually say? "Oh, fine." I think that has more to do with the fact that most of the time we are just fine and it's not just an answer to blow somebody off or avoid going into an involved conversation. We're OK. We're all right. Eh. Shrug.
So what does all that have to do with tragic love stories? Well, we reject "happily ever after" because nobody is. We will never experience true Utopia because we cannot even define it and even if we did stumble upon it we wouldn't know what to do with it. I think the idea that, in The Matrix where Agent Smith tells Morpheus that the first Matrix - the Utopia - didn't work because it was universally rejected, is an accurate one. It was an unqualified disaster because human beings don't want limitless and never-ending happiness. We'd love to all join hands and sing about wanting a Utopia but actually deep down most of us cringe when we think about it. Why? Near the end of the third season of the television show Angel an apparently beautiful supernatural being created a state of "world peace" (apparently only for the West Coast actually, but never mind) but the gang at Angel Investigations conspired to destroy that being because, a)she was actually ugly as sin and, most importantly, b)the peace was only possible because she took away that which most human beings hold most dear: free will.
We want to be free to be miserable as well as happy. We want to be able to dance, make love, and unload a whole clip into an unlucky person we don't like. And for love specifically, we have to be able to experience the misery and pain that comes with the joy. Otherwise, what's the point? If a magic spell were cast and the pain in love was eliminated we would probably get a nagging feeling that something wasn't right, that the love wasn't true love.
Therefore, stories that end with "happily ever after" are seen as flights of fancy. Sure they're nice stories, but that's not how it really is. At some point Prince Charming should get into a fight with Cinderella about how he never does the dishes or spends too much time going off quail hunting and drinking ale with the Knights of the Round Table and not being at home helping take care of the kids. No marriage is completely happy, no coupling is devoid of fights or some disagreements. The tragic love story has the pain we want the characters to experience in spades. We want Romeo to have the freedom to poison himself, we want Juliet to have the free will to plunge a dagger into her chest. We want Rose and Jack to experience as much adversity as possible - the fact that Jack was a second class citizen helps but them being on a big ship sinking into dark arctic waters will do nicely. And we want to experience these pains through them, to shed those tears, to have that emotional response. The less Jack gets to see Ennis, the more pain they feel about it, the more back-breaking that mountain is, the better! We'd much rather go to a movie and have a negative emotional response than none at all like what you might get with another boring "happily ever after" story for kids.
"I wish I knew how to quit you."
That is one of the best lines in any tragic love story ever to be written or spoken. It says so much with so little. How many times have you felt that way about somebody? It sure could have been nice if Jack could have found a way to do that.
But we wouldn't want that, now would we?
This could be one of the first tragic love stories. If and when that link dies, Google "Rome prehistoric lovers" or something.
LaggedyAnne says: I always felt like the real tragedies make the sweet moments that much sweeter. Also, the notion of unrequited love is one we can all identify with. Requited love? Now that's harder to maintain...