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Why I hate romantic novels that don’t end happily

Spoiler warning: If you wish to read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, do not read any further.

Recently for an English class, I was assigned The House of Mirth, and immediately I was drawn in by the excitement and imagery that Edith Wharton expressed in her novels. The description of beautiful gardens, pearl necklaces, fine dining, and anything of the upper class entranced me. However, it was the way that she portrayed romantic relationships that was the most compelling. Her ability to convey the female gaze gave a particular feminine view to romance that is remarkable for that time, and still is even now.

She begins The House of Mirth with the reunion of a pair of old friends, Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden, and there is a natural spark between them that builds into an obvious love. Of course, for the sake of plot, they are kept apart from each other by ranks of social class, gossip, and manipulation. Yet, as the end of the novel draws near, they confess feelings for each other, yet Selden dismisses Lily and they part ways for what seems like the last time.

Now this does seem like the classic device of romance novels; the couple has a conflict, they distrust one another, and then they put aside their pride and return to each other for the resolution. The House of Mirth appears to go in this direction. Selden comes to, and with ring in hand, he goes to Lily’s apartment to propose to her. However instead of a final loving reunion, Selden finds Lily dead from apparent suicide by sleeping pills.

As a reader, I slammed the book down and I called my friend. I mourned the tragedy of imaginary characters, and I resented Wharton for allowing the ending to appear happy before snatching it out from beneath me. Romantic novels should end happily, right? Is that not the exact purpose of creating a divinely compatible couple? Don’t they deserve that happiness? Don’t I deserve the satisfaction? By now, my friend was bored of the raging lunatic on the other end of the phone, and I still had a few pages left to read. So, I set aside my feelings, and I finished the novel.

Selden sits by her side, and he thinks over the events that transpired, the things that kept them apart. He is heartbroken, yet he expresses “At least he had loved her, had been willing to stake his future on his faith in her” He realizes they probably would not have married, but that her death preserved his love for her in a way that would not change.

I hate when romantic books don’t end happily. But the thing I hate even more, is the understanding that they have to end like that to teach a lesson. Lily and Selden had numerous opportunities to be together, but they forsake every single one. If the lesson I learn from this book is to recognize love when I see it, and to act on, as if there may not be another chance to make things right, I can accept an ending like that. Now I’m not saying text your toxic ex, but I will say read into the signs and trust your feelings. If you’re feeling alone this Valentine’s day, read a romantic novel, just preferably find one that won’t end in heartbreak.

Savannah Johnson is a freshman studying English and Psychology. She is originally from Connecticut, but has found her place in the city of Boston. She also enjoys reading, writing, and late night trips on the T.
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