Dec 7 2014 10:00am

Happily Never After: Romances Without a HEA

Recently, H&H’s Jennifer Proffitt took some time to speculate upon the likely fate of The Hobbit’s Kili and Tauriel. Although the adorable, mismatched dwarf-and-elf pair are not precisely canon—Tauriel is an invention of movie director Peter Jackson and his team of scriptwriters—anyone who has read the book is aware of Kili’s fate, and, well, suffice it to say that his future does not involve a tribe of pointy-eared elf babies who are equally proficient at mining and archery. Still, true believers are continuing to hold out hope for the unlikely pair, noting that merely by creating Tauriel, Jackson has shown a refreshing (or perhaps alarming, depending upon your perspective) willingness to play fast and loose with the canon, and that marrying Kili off is hardly as egregious an offense against J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre as creating a girlfriend for him to begin with.

We won’t know precisely what happens to the couple until The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies reaches theaters on December 17. Until then, all you shippers, meditate on this: If Peter Jackson elects to rip them apart forever, he’ll be far from the first writer to build up a romantic relationship, only to have it come crashing down. “Happily Never After,” or HNA, is much more common in fiction than you may realize.

While you don’t see this sort of thing happen often in category romance, most regencies, etc., elsewhere, all bets are off. I’ll prove it below—but be advised, I’ll be spoiling a lot of endings here, so proceed with caution.

HEAs are scuttled, and readers weep, under three general circumstances:

1. One or both main characters dies.

The trope of the Tragically Dead Lover was quite common back in the day. Heck, Romeo and Juliet ends with the titular young lovers committing suicide together. And well into the twentieth century, death of one or both halves of a relationship was the usual outcome for any pairing that did not culminate in a societally-sanctioned, church-blessed union – e.g., any adulterous relationship (for example, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) or pretty much any mainstream or mainstream-adjacent fiction featuring any same-sex pairing of any description.

Often, in Victorian novels, an initial relationship will end in the death of one of the partners, and the survivor will move on to a new and frequently more appropriate relationship. For example, in Charles Dickens’ classic coming-of-age novel David Copperfield, David is besotted with Dora Spenlow. The two marry, but silly and shallow (although good-hearted) Dora is never a true partner for the serious David. She eventually dies, freeing David to marry his friend Agnes, who is much more serious and sensible than flighty Dora. And in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic The Pearl of Orr’s Island, quiet, reflective Mara Lincoln has always loved her childhood friend Moses Pennel. As young adults, the two become engaged, but Moses is cocky and rebellious, and when Mara realizes that maybe she hasn’t made such a great choice, she basically wastes away and dies rather than tie herself to the guy. Moses winds up with Mara’s friend Sally, who is cheerful, strong-willed, and much more able to stand up to Moses—and less willing to put up with his crap—than the retiring Mara.

More recently, Erich Segal’s Love Story quite famously ends with Jenny dying in her husband’s arms. And, of course, the conclusion of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a big old-fashioned cry-fest. Chances are, you already know why.

2. The romance is secondary to the main character’s coming of age.

This situation is most common in “First Love” – type stories. The classic example? Judy Blume’s ironically-titled Forever… in which Katherine and Michael, two high-school seniors, meet at a party and fall passionately in love. Michael is Katherine’s First Everything, but when their summer jobs separate the two, the romance falls apart. By the end of the book, Katherine is in the process of moving on with her co-worker, Theo.

Then there’s Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends. You probably saw the entirely charming movie, in which awkward, ungainly Irish virgin Bernadette “Benny” Hogan (Minnie Driver) falls for wealthy, confident Jack Foley (Chris O’Donnell). But Jack cheats on Benny with her friend Nan (Saffron Burrowes), humiliating Benny and crushing her heart and her hopes.

In the movie, the two reconcile —in fact, it ends with Jack and Benny slipping into a charming little cottage together, while Benny enthusiastically voice-overs “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned!”—the implication being…well, I think you can guess. Better go gitcha some, Benny, because that is not how the book ends. In the book, Benny realizes that Jack may be handsome, charming, rich, and destined for greatness, but he’s also a cad and she deserves better. It’s heavily implied, in fact, that she’s getting ready to move on with a different, more reliable, member of her circle.

You do see this sort of thing from time to time in older books, too. For example, in Adam Bede by George Eliot, the titular Adam is wild about a beautiful but poor girl named Hetty Sorrel. Hetty loves one Arthur Donnithorne and has his illegitimate child, but then some tragically bad things happen and Hetty ends up being shipped off to Australia via convict transport. Adam marries Hetty’s cousin, Dinah, and it’s implied that she’s probably a better wife to Adam than Hetty could ever have been. (If you want to see a young, clean Iain “Friendzone 4-EVA” Glen, Patsy “Bride of Oasis” Kensit, and Susannah “I Was Also In Pride and Prejudice” Harker re-enact this triangle, please be advised that this is a thing that exists.)

3. The author is pulling a fast one on us.

I’m only going to talk about one book here, but it’s a doozy: Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, which won England’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1988 and later became a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett in the title roles. “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet,” comments the unnamed narrator, and that’s technically true. After all, if Oscar, an Anglican minister seemingly at the mercy of his impulses, and Lucinda, a lonely heiress who gambles as a form of rebellion, didn’t meet and fall deeply in love, they never would have made a ridiculous bet that Oscar could transport a church made entirely of glass across the Australian Outback. And if that foolhardy bet had not been placed, Oscar would never have met a young woman named Miriam, impregnated her, married her, and died. And if Oscar had not impregnated Miriam, the narrator’s forebears would never have existed. And if I hadn’t read that novel in its entirety, I would never have developed a grudge against Peter Carey that continues to this very day.

I mean, seriously. Very sly, Mr. Carey.

I’m sure I’ve left some big ones out. What is your favorite HNA in fiction?


Kate Nagy only wants to read cheerful books from now on.

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Barb in Maryland
1. Barb in Maryland
In your Victorian/Edwardian examples you left out the book that I threw across the room when I finished it---"The Prisoner of Zenda". OMG! It's one of the 'honor trumps true love' story lines. Our heroine is engaged to the ruler of Ruritania (one of those pretend central European principalities beloved by authors). Said ruler is kidnapped, his advisors replace him with a look-alike Englishmanto cover up the disappearance. Heroine, not realizing he's impersonating her fiance, falls in love (and vice versa).
And, at the end, when the prince is rescued and restored and All is Revealed, she goes ahead and marries the prince, because that was the honorable thing to do. Oh, the prince doesn't conveniently die so she can marry the Englishman.
Barb in Maryland
2. Megaera
The original Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Speaking of throwing books against the wall...
Maggie Boyd
3. maggieboyd66
@Barb in Maryland I don't know if you ever read the sequel to Prisoner of Zenda called Rupert of Hentzau but the conclusion to that book makes Prisoners Ending look down right cheery,
Barb in Maryland
4. Barb in Maryland
@maggieboyd66--No, I never did read "Rupert". The ending of PoZ left no hope for a HEA for our two lovers, so there was no sense in reading the sequel (at least for this romance junkie).
FYI, I found the Graustark books by George Barr McCutcheon to be much more palatable (more happy endings!). And the old editions I had were illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson (of Gibson Girl fame). Bonus!
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