Caroline Levine (Cornell)
“Endings and Sustainability”
This keynote was given as part of the "Beyond Narrative" conference on October 11, 2019.
Abstract: For many politically-minded critics, the instability of the narrative middle is its most productive and radical part: this is where a text reveals social crises and contradictions. Happy endings are troubling, in this context, because they bring instabilities to false and comforting resolutions that cover over or ignore the crucial economic and political forces at work. Wrapping up with bourgeois domesticity or success for the individual protagonist, the happy ending has often cruelly disposed of other characters along the way—the madwoman in the attic, the queer lover—and has proposed no structural alternatives to the status quo.
I want to turn this argument on its head to suggest that even the most comforting, happily-ever-after narrative endings might be politically useful on the left. Endings do not so much bring all action to a close—as the term closure suggests—as show us stable routines that extend predictably into the future. They are thresholds where dramatic, exciting, and unstable plotted action turns into the promise of sustainable life. It is my argument here that food security and stable shelter are fundamental social goods that are essential to any politics of sustainability, and that for this reason, happy endings are not only politically distracting or illusory, but necessary to the affirmative work of the left. Examples of texts I will address here include Oliver Twist (1839), Esther Waters (1894), Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Evicted (2017). And I will make the case that this version of narrative liminality will be crucial to thinking environmental sustainability in our moment.