I would say that the absolute hardest thing to do in any art is to depict happiness in a way that’s pleasing to the audience. Tragedy is much easier. Tragedies can be written like chess, slowly moving pieces into alignment until finally knocking down the queen or king. In depicting happiness, you’re taking a big chance. For one, there’s the big chance that your audience won’t have as much joy as your characters in reading about/seeing them. Think of all of the saccharine movie montages showing couples dancing or moving into a new apartment then seguing into marriage. How often do these montages actually affect you in a way that also makes you happy? For me, such scenes are more often than not just boring, signalling it’s a good time to run to the bathroom or go to the concessions, and by the time I come back the movie will return to the good old conflict again. Unhappiness is, more often than not, a big part of an artist’s M.O., if not his or her muse.
Yesterday, I was writing about how the director Preston Sturges manages to evoke tears of joy in his slapstick comedies, and it got me thinking, what other art work has done this to me? Maybe not literal tears, but at least given a sort of euphoric happiness that’s not too sugary or rooted in disbelief? Here’s a list I came up. I’m obsessed with lists.
Literature I’d say is the hardest medium to depict happiness with, because literature inevitably involves sitting down and reading, and thus is a cerebral experience. Happiness though owes so much to the senses–sight and sound and taste in particular, it’s hard to expect a book to compete. Here’s a few examples of books I can think of that actually featured happy moments that also affected me.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat: In all honesty, Iris Murdoch‘s masterpiece A Fairly Honourable Defeat is frequently bleak and some parts are absolutely tragic, but there are at least a few chapters that portray real happiness. The happiness of the characters becomes all the more pronounced because of the despair that pervades so many of the other scenes. It’s basically a comedy of manners turned into a tragedy by one character, a Machiavellian intellectual who insists on ruining everyone’s lives by disrupting their relationships through careful maneuvering and manipulation. There are scenes though where love wins out, despite his machinations, and these are very happy indeed. It’s a romance, but one that’s also about good and evil, and there’s nothing happier than seeing good triumph now and then.
Ulysses: Roddy Doyle famously said, as an abreaction to how Irish literature is always compared to James Joyce, that he read through all of Ulysses and never felt anything. I don’t understand that. He must have been spacing out. There’s a lot of very nice little moments throughout the book that are very heartwarming. I would compare it a little bit to A Fairly Honourable Defeat, by saying that a decent amount of this book is dark and gloomy, and a lot of the characters are highly cynical, but again, that makes the happiness all the more potent. For instance, there’s a scene where the hero Leopold Bloom is walking down the road and sees a young man smoking. At first he thinks to himself that someone should tell the boy to stop because it’s bad for him and will stunt his growth, but then, in his stream of consciousness, Bloom cancels out that thought by thinking something like “O let him, his life’s not a bed of roses.” To me, at least, this is a nice little tableau, showing how empathy can win out against the evil force of condescension. There’s a ton of tiny scenes like this throughout the book. Also, Ulysses has the most affirmative ending in all of literature.
Great Expectations: I’m sure when contemporary readers come across Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, the character seems a little ridiculous. His speaking manner is about as mellifluous as the sound of horses clopping on muddy cobblestones. He so often comes across as a silly, ineffectual man, like in the way he’s constantly badgered and hastled by his wife, the narrator Pip’s sister. As Great Expectations goes on though, Gargery becomes more and more likeable. As you read about how all of these characters (including the narrator) are subjugaged by their own base prejudices, you realize that poor cockney Gargery is about the only person in all of London who’s walking around without blinders on. Pip makes more and more of a heel out of himself, frequently denigrating poor Gargery. Then, when the characters reunite, you’ll be wishing that loveable Gargery would just berate or throttle pip for turning away the only person who genuinely loves him. But then Dickens reminds you that the biggest part of love is forgiveness, and when Gargery forgives Pip, the tone’s about as joyous as literature can get.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: This is yet another case of a novel featuring happiness in tragedy’s respite, but here, the tragedy is drawn from history. The character Kavalier is a young man who has left all of his family behind in Prague at the start of the Nazi purges. He then comes to New York and lives with his cousin in a poor tenement. For much of the novel, it seems like these two misfortunate guys are never going to catch a break, but when they do–the odds have to even out sooner or later, one of the great messages of literature–I’m sure you’ll be moved. I’ll even bet you’ll be choked up by the last paragraph of the novel. I would say this is the best American book of the last twenty years (to read a longer review I wrote of it, click here).
Anna Karenina: Since the climax of this book is more or less common knowledge (if you don’t know it, I won’t say it), I think people have misrepresented the book by calling it a classic romantic tragedy. What is lost in that epithet is that this is a book about life, and as such, there’s more than tragedy in it. I would even say that if it wasn’t heralded as such a moving tragedy, more people would actually read it. This is a book that takes hours and hours to get through. It took me more than a month, and I’m a pretty fast reader. No one will really want to make such a commitment if they think the book is merely sad. It’s not. There’s whole sections that have nothing or little to do with the fates of Tolstoy’s adulterers. A lot of the books happiest scenes are allocated to the character of Levin, although his is not a happy life. He’s actually a character plagued by fits of depression and thoughts of a yawning emptiness beneath him. He’s afforded happiness though, and because of his backstory, the scenes of joy are hardly tainted with any purplishness or sugariness. The scene where he simply watches his beloved ice-skate is one of my favorite scenes in all of literature (to read about an unremittingly dark story by Tolstoy, click here).
Okay, I’m going to take a break for now. I hadn’t intended to let this post go on for so long. Check back sometime soon. I’m planning to write up a similar list of happiness in film, my other area of expertise. If you can think of books I’ve overlooked that contain great joy (I’ve overlooked a lot I’m sure) write their title and a description in the response box.
If you’re curious, there are at least a handful of happy scenes in my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories. Also, my newer book A Rapturous Occasion has its moments. To see both, check out my Amazon author page.
Here’s a video for A Rapturous Occasion.
Are there any scenes of happiness in literature you like?