Who Needs Happy Endings?

Joyce Carol Oates has written a beautiful book about grief following the loss of a spouse. As Oates is one of the most prolific American writers much has been written about it: comparing it to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking; praising its prose; considering the psychological split between being a Writer and being a Wife; taking it to task for not mentioning Oates’s re-marriage. Implied in this last is, If you’re happy and you know it, shouldn’t you clap your hands?


Here is an excerpt from the book that ran in The Atlantic, “I Regret To Inform You:”

My heart beats hard with resentment, despair. Though my effort seems so futile, like cleaning all the rooms of the house in preparation for my husband’s return from the hospital, turning on all the lights—or, turning them off—yet I can’t seem to stop, and the thought of hiring someone to help me, or even bringing anyone into the house for this purpose, is not possible. All I know is—I can’t let Ray down. This is my responsibility as his wife.

I mean, his widow.

Oates writes about feeling defined by that word, “widow.” When she reads an unfinished manuscript of her husband’s found after he died, she discovered that perhaps he had abandoned his own ambition to write in order to help foster hers. From the New York Times Book Review:

Oates expresses regret — if only she had encouraged him! — yet there is also a strong undercurrent of relief, and of gratitude. Oates (who has since married a neuroscientist) is reluctant to face the real power balance between artist and spouse, but her memoir boldly betrays her and in doing so pays fuller tribute to the husband she lost. It seems obvious — and understandable — that Ray Smith was overwhelmed by her creativity; he could not be her competitor, or her editor. But he was a man who faced down his own demons to be the calm companion who helped her career, and her imagination, take off.

This is a story about love. That the book does not include (concede?) that there was a happy ending to the loss —of the author’s new love, new marriage, and presumed new emotional equilibrium—upset readers expecting that as either a fuller truth or as the best trajectory for their own conclusions about the shape of grief. Yet anyone who has suffered loss knows: the spouse who dies unexpectedly is the spouse who lives on, often inalterably. Living happily following tragedy is a natural way to honor that love. The choice to leave the re-marriage out, from a literary as well as an emotional standpoint, was the only one. Had Oates included it, the book would not have been about loss; it would have been about renewal. Don’t we have enough of those stories already?

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