We had lunch with a friend last week - and our conversation came around to my lack of interest in so-called good literature. I do like to read, and our house is filled with books, but the fiction portion is mostly mysteries and science fiction. I even feel mildly guilty about this imbalance.
We spoke of Thomas Hardy - who is a very depressing read. And then Jane Austin - I said, well I like happy endings. Our friend replied that Austin's books do all end happily. With that, what I really dislike suddenly became clear - it's that the characters in most good literature are not in control of their destinies. Where the endings are happy, as in Jane Austin's works, happiness is achieved by manipulation and wile - and luck. This reflects society in the author's time. True individual self-determination is something quite new, in fact, and often is as much ideal as real. The truth about it is that, though considered and labeled a right, at least here in America, it is really a rare treasure which very few people have. Eventually, hard events reveal the extent to which most of us are controlled by others. But when this is made plain in childhood, the effect is profound, coloring everything that follows.
There is a heart-breaking poem by Rudyard Kipling, "Gentlemen Rankers", that contains the verses,
- We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
- We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
- And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
- God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Even when the ending is happy, the situation itself is tragic. I know this tragedy too well to want to read more about it.