The “happily” in “happily ever after” can be a rare thing to find. But when I pick up a new fiction novel, I do not consider what the end of the book will be quite as much as I consider whether or not the journey of that novel will satisfy my thirst for a good, long story. Obviously there are few people who go out of their way to read a bad book, but how many of us are looking for a story where what the characters experience is mostly considered, well, bad?
Dystopian novels have certainly been popular in the world of fiction lately, but what is interesting to consider is what makes such storylines and the characters therein so appealing. There is, of course, the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which is about an unlikely and reluctant heroine. My own new personal favorite is the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, where the reluctant heroine is another unlikely and largely unwilling candidate. Delirium by Lauren Oliver is also on the list, in which the heroine can be described as similar to the previous two. All three of these examples showcase a similar storyline: the government is evil and is taken down by a teenage girl with rebel support. The heroine is flawed, almost to an extreme, and almost always has trouble deciding whether to act for the good of the many or for her own personal gain. These characters are continuously being thrown into bad situations with bad people and they have a generally unhappy story to tell.
But let’s take a moment and focus on the hit novels of the Hunger Games. Spoilers notwithstanding, I am not sure anyone would call the ending to Collins’s Mockingjay a particularly happy one. Sure, there is a clear winner in the end and there is a semblance of normality, but life for Katniss Everdeen, the flawed heroine, does not end in a truly “happy” place. She still has unresolved baggage at the end. It is not a satisfying way to end such a disturbed series, so why do readers like me go out in search of novels with a similar motif? Are we searching for a dystopian novel that has a happy ending? Or is it true that the journey is more important than the destination?
If a realistic story is what readers are searching for, then I suppose it only makes sense that there would not be a definitive ending to such novels. Collins ends her novel with an indication that a better life is what lays ahead for Panem, even if not for Katniss directly. In the first novel, at age sixteen, this protagonist was forced into a homicidal battle for survival. How could Collins possibly end it all with “they lived happily ever after” and maintain her credibility for the rest of the story?
It seems readers of dystopian novels believe that no matter how bad things get, there is always a chance they can return to normal, if not to happiness. Problem solving and staring down adversity are clearly what readers are still looking for. The difference in dystopian literature is that the outcomes are unlikely to be tied up with a neat bow at the end.