Great Expectations and sad endings

Here we saw how Hemingway struggled with the ending to A Farewell to Arms. You need to get the ending right.

For some novels, the most important decision will be whether the ending is sad or happy.  You’d think this decision would flow inevitably from the story you’re telling.  In some cases, that’s true.  In a genre private eye novel, the private eye will crack the case.  In a genre romance, girl will get boy.  In mainstream Hollywood movies nowadays, you’re pretty much guaranteed a happy ending; otherwise the movie wouldn’t have gotten made.  But for lots of novels, the ending balances on a knife edge between life and death, marriage and loneliness, joy and despair.  That, in fact, is what keeps the reader reading.  The author gets to make the call.

The ending to Pontiff caused me the most problems in this regard.  Should girl get boy, when boy is a priest?  If so, does that qualify as a happy ending?  In any case, did the ending work–was it true to the story?  Lemme know! (There is another sad aspect of the story that involves the death of a character at the climax, and I really didn’t want to do it.  But my plot gave me no choice.)

King Lear‘s ending is so damn sad that even critics like Samuel Johnson thought it was unbearable. For 300 years, from the Restoration to the mid-nineteenth century, the only version performed was a revision by Nahum Tate in which Cordelia survived and married Edgar. We have seen evidence that Shakespeare revised the play, but the revisions, if anything, made the play’s ending sadder.

The most celebrated case of revising an ending to make it happier was Great Expectations.

Dickens’ original ending was bleak. The narrator, Pip, who has been in love with the unattainable Estella since he first laid eyes on her, meets her on the street many years later:

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness.

I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again — in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip — when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

Too sad! One of his friends–maybe Wilkie Collins–complained.  So Dickens tried again.  He has Pip and Estella meet on the grounds of Miss Havisham’s ruined house, where they had first met many years ago:

“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench. “And will continue friends apart”. I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Too happy!  That’s what lots of critics have complained.  Shaw said: The novel “is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

Well, I dunno.  A novel can be unhappy throughout, yet achieve its happiness at the end.  Characters grow; characters change.  And there’s no question that the revised ending is better written than the original, which is awfully flat.  Most modern editions include both endings, I think, like a DVD where you can choose the author’s cut.

Dickens himself seemed happy with the revision.  He said: “I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”

You be the judge.  Also, see the David Lean movie, with John Mills as Pip and Jean Simmons as the ethereally beautiful young Estella.

4 thoughts on “Great Expectations and sad endings

  1. As I work on my novel, I am inevitably inspired by posts like this. So many things to think about and options to consider that seem like common sense at first, but actually are not. Thanks for this!


  2. The first ending is dreadful. Of course, you don’t need the conventional happy ending — what you need is a satisfying ending. It can be unhappy, but it shouldn’t be so depressing you never want to read that author again!

    “A novel can be unhappy throughout, yet achieve its happiness at the end.” Very true.


  3. Pingback: Bad beginnings; also some good ones | richard bowker

  4. Pingback: Writers in Movies: The Invisible Woman | richard bowker

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