When I named this website "And They Lived Happily Ever After" my intention was to show that marriage truly begins after the wedding. I also wanted the rosy, romantic images brought to mind by fairy tales to carry through into the realm of matrimony. But in choosing this name, I was aware that I might be implying a dislike of fairy tales, or a dissatisfaction with the way they end. This is not the case. I simply chose an image that most people can relate to: two people riding off into their unknown together, hoping for the best.
But as I did more research on fairy tales themselves, I came across countless writers and psychologists who use fairy tales to describe disorders, like The Cinderella Complex and The Peter Pan Syndrome, and still more who lambaste these gentle tales as some sort of evil we spring on our children, an assault from which they never quite recover. Feminist publications in particular usually attack fairy tales for what they consider to be the sexist and beauty-focused treatment of women in these stories. Some feminist writers pen tongue-in-cheek re-writes of classic tales to show what relationships are really like, what selfish jerks men are, how hardworking and hard-done-by women usually are, and how silly it is to even tell stories like these in the first place. Some approach this as a scholarly concern, claiming that these stories perpetuate the idea that women are only ideal when they're sleeping - Snow White and Sleeping Beauty - and that a woman's only position in the world is that of decoration for some power hungry man.
I am not primarily concerned with whether a group of feminists find fault with value oriented stories of love and romance. My issue is whether fairy tales truly leave us dangling, so to speak, by ending abruptly after the wedding vows and saying nothing further of the couple's success. I suspected they did, as I mentioned in the opening page of this site, but I found it hard to believe that this was some sort of oversight or some attempt to leave readers confused. I wanted to know why we never learn how it is the happy couple stayed happy.
After reading through several of the most popular fairy tales, I determined why these stories only go as far as the wedding and no further, or end with the catch-all "and they lived happily ever after." It's because the whole story is set up to show us why marriage is their ultimate goal and that it is, frankly, a piece of cake compared to what they've just been through.
Every popular heroine has tremendous strife to deal with: Cinderella lost her mother and then her father, and found herself exploited and abused by her step mother and sisters, eking out her existence among the ashes in her servants' scullery. Snow White was despised by a jealous old hag who wasn't content to simply banish the girl, she had to send someone out to cut her heart out. Sleeping Beauty was sedated by another such hag. Rapunzel was taken by an old witch as payment for a bunch of leafy vegetables, and locked up in a tower, alone, for her entire life, forbidden from enjoying love. It seems to me that in each of these tales, as in real life, young, vibrant, attractive women have far more to fear from older, embittered, jealous women than they ever do from men...but I digress.
The princes in each of these cases are also lonely men who long for a woman to love. The implication is that the burdens of their office are heavy, especially in the absence of a wise and wonderful queen with whom to rule. They pursue their dream woman relentlessly, even though they could have easily settled for someone else. They aren't concerned about her pedigree or family coat of arms; she can be a princess or a peasant, it makes no difference to the prince who wants to marry her.
Cinderella's prince scours the countryside looking for her. Sleeping Beauty's prince hacks his way through a hundred years' worth of overgrowth at her castle just to get to her. And Rapunzel's love braves the wrath of the old witch and climbs precariously up Rapunzel's long hair. The prince in Beauty and the Beast had to somehow convince a woman to fall in love with him in spite of his monstrous appearance, without being able to reveal that he was actually a prince, as did the frog whose true identity was hidden until that magical kiss.
In every case, the couple faced almost insurmountable odds, often had to battle family prejudices and societal disdain, had to steal moments with each other with no assurances that they could ever marry, and, to top it all off, were often the victim of spells and supernatural curses meant to make them miserable.
With these kinds of problems to deal with, settling into marriage in a nice cozy castle with the one you love safely your arms seems like a walk in the park.
Or it should be. Another lesson we can learn from the simplistic happy endings of these tales is that once you've overcome hardship in your life, have the common sense to know when you've got it good, and celebrate it. So many people achieve every conceivable happiness in life, yet still need something to complain about. Never rich enough, never thin enough, never something enough, seems to be the mantra of our culture, when most of us are more comfortable, more loved, more well off than we think we are. Fairy tales show us that when you've got it good, there's no excuse for complaining or moping or trying to find problems where none exist. The prince and princess do live happily ever after; they suffered enough before hand, they're definitely going to enjoy a life filled with love once they're lucky enough to find it.
And even if real life is more complicated than fairy tales, I think it's worth remembering that these are largely stories for children, who have not yet developed the sophisticated cognitive abilittes we have. They need black and white, good versus evil, sorrow versus joy, in order to learn anything about life. Later they will learn about the gray areas, as we all do. Later they will learn that not all beautiful women are good and sweet and lovable, and that not all powerful men make good husbands. Later they will understand that happiness can be far more difficult to attain than we initially think. But we have to give them these archetypes to begin with, we must show them that struggling for love and happiness and good things is rewarding, and that a joyful life is possible if we pursue our values with integrity and morality. We can't forget that for adults, the world's architecture is already built; we simply live within its walls and try not to complain about the design. Children are in the process of building their world, though, and need to see vaulted ceilings and bright, open windows if they're ever going to grow into happy adults.
And looking back, it was probably those first fairy tales I read that gave me the idea of lifetime love and romance in the first place, and the vision I carried with me through to adulthood that it was indeed possible to live happily ever after. I'll gladly read fairy tales to my children if doing so will engender that same spirit of hope and promise in them.