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February 06, 2005

"Happy" Endings in Austen

What seems to be more important than the sudden and fortunate event, however, because it precedes the ending again and again, in whatever manner the end is produced, is that the heroine is prepared to accept unhappiness. The endings of Jane Austen's novels are never sentimental because before she will allow the happy result the heroine must face the fact that she has lost.... The reader may refuse to believe...because he has been given a different set of expectations, but the heroine must believe. She must not simply see the threat as another obstacle that she can do something about, and she must not despair because, having lost, there is nothing in life for her to do. She must really see it as a loss, absorb it as irreversible fact, and then come to terms with herself and go ahead with what she meant to do now. She often finds herself in the same place and in the same company as she was at the beginning, but she cannot be the same person herself because time has made a difference and things will never be the same again. She must in the same place face a new time, and it is very hard.... [Austen's characters] must accept their unhappiness before they are granted happiness. The reward then is not the essential thing because it need never have arrived; that may well be dependent on chance; what is important is that at the time it is granted the heroine is worthy of a happiness that has a meaning. She would have been worthy of it even if her lot had proved unhappy because in her place she has used her time well, and that is not a matter of chance. (Tave, ch. 1, pp. 17-18, added emphasis)

-Some Words About Jane Austen (1973), Stuart M. Tave

Austen's genius never fails to take my breath away. She gives us the happy ending, bringing the lovers together at last with some tidy summary along the lines of "And so they realized their true feelings and were married. Finis." But that's not the real conclusion Austen has in mind. It's the heroine's successful examination of her life - her difficult, heartbreaking journey to true understanding, unstinting self-knowledge. And having arrived at - survived, even - such knowing, she is able to accept what lies before her - the unhappiness of having lost the man she loves, of resolving to go on with her life, making the best of what remains.

That Austen finally does offer the resolution that both the heroine and the reader most desire, albeit in the sparest of detail, what lingers, what cannot be ignored is the undercurrent of chance, the sense that this happy conclusion was not guaranteed. Austen gives us plenty of examples of characters who do not demand of themselves the same rigorous self-knowing, and in the end they are disappointed, tragic figures. For Austen's heroine, this is the happiness that is earned after great personal struggle, and it is therefore to be more sweetly cherished.

Yours, &c., LC | 10:51 AM | Jane | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

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It is an fact of shame, and one I intend to put right soon, that I have never read any Austen.

*runs away and hides*

Posted by: Stuart at February 6, 2005 02:29 PM

I am not one to cast stones!

I think you'd really enjoy reading her. So much goes on in her work, and she has such fine knowledge of human nature. And although I've been reading and re-reading her for some time, I think her work is really accessible for the modern-day reader. She's so funny, she's so polished - she says so much in such compact, painterly moments.

Yes, I'm biased, but it's only because I'd love for you to know how wonderful she is. :-)

Posted by: Lady Crumpet at February 6, 2005 02:47 PM

Have you read Virginia Woolf's praise of Austen in "A Room of Her Own"? She says that Austen wrote brilliantly despite the absence of private space, and her limited kife experience with the outside world.

Posted by: BridalBeer at February 7, 2005 01:33 PM

Actually, I haven't (see why I can't cast stones?). I will definitely look into that, thanks!

Posted by: Lady Crumpet at February 7, 2005 02:16 PM

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