“Hope is More Than Happiness”

Paterson, Katherine

The New York Times, December 25, 1988

Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist is mostly a sad tale of an innocent and earnest boy struggling with the evil forces that beset him—life in a workhouse, hunger, desolation, abuse by an evil genius, “the Jew” Fagin.  But Dickens needed to sell his books, and he knew the route to his readers’ satisfaction, namely, the happy ending.  Paterson: “Dickens himself had no trouble turning Oliver’s trauma into a happy ending. It takes three chapters and 28 closely printed pages to do it, but, as always, Dickens manages to tie every stray thread into a splendiferous macrame of justice and joy. The evil are punished, the good are bountifully rewarded, and those in the middle repent and reap such benefits as befit their middling estate. The ending of Oliver Twist is a dramatic example of what travesties can befall a good writer with a bad editor, or, as I darkly suspect, no editor at all.”  Paterson observes this in the course of explicating the less sanguine endings of her own realistic books for children.  She says this: Children have “a wistful yearning we all share for ‘happily ever after.’”

“Nothing less than happily ever after will satisfy children who see themselves helpless and hedged in by huge and powerful adults. They need the hope that fairy tales provide. Realistic stories can’t give a child this same assurance because, as Bruno Bettelheim reminds us: ‘Their unrealistic fears require unrealistic hopes.’ By comparison with the child’s wishes, realistic and limited promises are experienced as deep disappointment, not as consolation. But they are all that a relatively realistic story can offer.”