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The ‘happily ever after’ we seek only exists in fiction

Reading stories full of delusions allows us to escape from the modern world

Why fiction is going to screw you up and over in the long-term:

You are not going to be a wizard.
Your boyfriend will not be a vampire.
You will not find your ‘one true love.’
You will not be extraordinary.

On World Book Day, in 2015, a new poll revealed that the nation’s favourite opening line was from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. A novel of childhood escapism, encouraging what we might term ‘self-induced deception’ is heralded as a cultural classic – its social status cemented by the popular 1953 Disney immortalisation; the opening line of which being: “All children, except one, grow up.”

We might question why an age obsessed with rationality and science produced the epitome of everything contrary to those principles. Clare Brennan, reviewing the Regent’s Park open air theatre production of Peter Pan, states “you’ll believe a boy can fly.” Of course, her comment is in relation largely to the fantastic stage set and choreography, having seen it myself in 2016 I can confirm this, but the centrality of ‘belief’ to her claim creates an interesting dichotomy between deception and honesty, truth, or truthfulness.

A quick search into the BBC News archives produces a multitude of responses towards, and uses of, the word ‘deception.’ From love-triangles, to fraud and fake university degrees – dishonesty is both newsworthy and rife. We expect things to be exciting for us because of what we read and watch and fills our heads with. But life cannot live up to the stands of something inherently fictional. What you read as a child will fill you with fantasy and unrealistic expectations of the world but don’t worry adulthood will knock all the joy out of you. And then when you’ve just about lost the will to live, you’ll start to find new books to believe in.

I think it’s probably a valuable experience – that of forming unrealistic expectations. We would never dream if we didn’t have the inspiration to imagine reaching for heights and sights beyond our human capacity. Fiction deceives us even in the act of reminding us what we are reading is only a story, contained within the physical book itself or jarring kindle (if that’s what you’re into.)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes the final paragraph of The Little Prince beside a further illustration of the place where “the little prince appeared on Earth, and disappeared,” urging his reader to “Look at it carefully so that you will be sure to recognize it.” The drawing to the left shows two single arching lines and a star. The desert itself is perhaps one of the most anonymous landscapes on Earth making the conclusion of the novella all the more heart-wrenching. We will never recognise his sketch in the desert, but we can recognise it as a metaphor for self-delusion – the fact that we need to deceive ourselves in order to have hope.

We delude ourselves that our lives are going to turn out ‘happily ever after’ like a cheesy rom-com plot. The phrase itself only too often it conjuring to mind Disney princes and Cinderella glass slippers. This idea is distinctly linked to what we might term ‘one true love’ – another form of romantic fantasy or delusion in literature. Though ostensibly fantastical, if one traces this concept back through the annals of time we can see the exploration of the ‘soulmate’ is something which has been pioneered for centuries. One of the stigmas attached to this phrase, probably due to its traditional portrayal through fairy-tales, is that meeting your ‘one true love’ is somehow conclusive. When Snow White meets Prince Charming for the first time he wakes her with a kiss and immediately they marry, naturally living “happily ever after.” Arguably it is misleading to look at the way the soulmate is portrayed through fairy-tales as instead of showing the development of the love story and the difficulties which arise out of that relationship, instead fairy-tales are predominately focused on ‘killing the baddie’ and restoring prosperity to the kingdom. Therefore what is the use of the fairy-tale as a means of discussing the notion ‘one true love’ when in fact the stories themselves are metaphors for the condemnation of evil and restoration of innocence, giving apparently no insight into the esoteric ‘one true love.’

If then such fiction only fills our heads with unrealistic fluff, we might then move to question why these misconceptions came about and for what reason the Western World’s fascination with ‘true love’ endures. In a world where death is our only certainty perhaps it seems reasonable we want to have faith in something eternal beyond that – love is exemplified as a suspending force which can make us forget the continual assault of time. In the words of the poet, Anne Sexton, “[w]e laugh and we touch. I promise you love. Time will not take that away.”

It might seem strange that British society, with the highest divorce rate in Europe (2.8 divorces per 1000 marriages) should remain enchanted by the notion of ‘one true love.’ Perhaps the word itself ‘enchanted’ explains our fixation with this idea. To be enchanted is to be charmed by something but it can also mean to be put under a spell. If we take this second meaning then it illustrates something interesting about our relationship with the notion ‘one true love.’ We are blind to its inconsistencies and flaws as a statement, not only do we want to believe in the fantasy of eternal love, but also acknowledge the possibility of a certain person being entwined with our own destiny. So often it can feel as though life is without meaning and by accepting the existence of the soulmate, we allow ourselves to be defined by that relationship and in doing so, are given a raison d’être.

On a personal level, I believe the notion of ‘one true love’ is primarily flawed in one aspect – namely because it quantifies itself. Love is not something that can be measured or purchased, it is a feeling; a sensation; a state of being which runs through and connects us. Human beings are complicated creatures and therefore I would dispute the notion of ‘one love’ – why out of all the emotions would we be able to simplify one of the most complex? Perhaps one does not experience the same quality of love twice, but just because the love is different does not mean the love is not still ‘true.’

Our experiences of the world are informed by everything we have seen, heard and read. But fiction – words – produces a cruel paradox. We can deceive ourselves with the language we use. Making meaning from a series of ostensibly meaningless letters arranged to make equally meaningless letter patterns – our world only makes sense because of the order derived from the sense which we impose upon it.

Why then do we read at all?

For hope, for love, for everything in-between.

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