The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
– Miss Prism, from “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde
Miss Prism is referring here to a novel she herself had written – a novel later described by Lady Bracknell as being of “more than usually revolting sentimentality”. Be that as it may, Miss Prism’s view of fiction, which always gets a laugh in performance, is one that is still, perhaps rather surprisingly, widely shared. A character thriving at the end is still seen as indicative of the author’s approval; and conversely, a character coming to a sticky end indicative of the author’s condemnation.
In certain cases, such a view does indeed hold. In Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, the ant ends up well, thus indicating he has behaved well; and the grasshopper ends up badly, indicating he hasn’t. But I remain unconvinced that so clear-cut a moral distinction can, or indeed should, be looked for outside fables. And when they are seen in fictions as complex and as sophisticated as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, I find myself moved to protest: reducing the complexity and the sophistication of works such as these to the level of Miss Prism’s simple-minded dichotomy is surely to diminish and to misrepresent them.
The latest instance of this kind of thing appears is a column in today’s Times by Janice Turner (which is, sadly, behind a paywall, though here is a link for those who can access it). Now, I do rather enjoy Janice Turner’s columns, and I regret that hers had to be the straw that broke this camel’s back. But this camel’s back is, if not perhaps broken, at least fractured to such an extent that a quick blog post on the matter does not seem an over-reaction.
Ms Turner writes about a television drama called Apple Tree Yard, and complains that the rather nasty fate visited upon its principal female character indicates the film-makers’ moral condemnation of her sexual transgression. She writes:
Although written, produced and directed by women, Apple Tree Yard contains the same 19th century moral reproach to bored wives as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.
Now, I cannot comment specifically on Apple Tree Yard, not having seen it; but, in more general terms, seeing fiction through the prism of Miss Prism does seem a very naïve approach, to say the least. And when this rather simplistic critique is extended to cover works of such moral complexity and sophistication as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, excitable tempers such as mine tend to get … well, a bit excited, I suppose.
I wonder what other works this critical approach may be extended to. Let us try Hamlet. I don’t think I need to put up a Spoiler Alert before saying that Hamlet dies at the end. But then again, the poor bugger was so bloody indecisive, it’s no wonder Shakespeare wanted to punish him! So there you have it, folks. Moral: don’t beat about the bush. In the immortal words of Buck’s Fizz, you’ll find that there comes a time – for making your mind up.
Claudius dies too, and that, surely, serves him bloody right: no sympathy there. Gertrude dies as well: I guess Shakespeare didn’t approve too much of her “o’er-hasty marriage”. As for Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – well, they all had it coming, didn’t they? But that still leaves Ophelia. Now, what did Will have against her? He certainly kills her off, so he must be punishing her for something. I guess I’d better read the damn thing again, and find out.
On the bright side, though, Horatio and Fortinbras keep going. Will must, I guess, have approved of them.
For if, as Miss Prism opines, the Good end happily, and the Bad unhappily, then it must follow, as day follows night, that those who end happily must be Good, and those who end unhappily must be Bad. And at a stroke, literary criticism becomes simple. Anyone can do it.
And, looking around the net, anyone does. Even me, for heavens’ sake!