Last November, I wrote a long post, The Happy End vs. The Noble End about how many 19th Century works are altered to give them more “happy ends” when they are adapted to appeal to a modern audience. I talked about the popularity of tragic, noble endings in Dickens day vs. our own.
Yesterday I was skimming through Susan Cain’s Quiet again and I came a little bit closer to understanding the cultural change that has made happy ends, in which the characters get what they wanted at the beginning of the story, eclipse noble ends, in which characters perform good works in secret and receive no earthly reward for it.
Cain cites the influential cultural historian Warren Susman who dubbed our extrovert-focused culture a “Culture of Personality.”
“The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”
Before we started to admire those with the greatest skills in self-promotion, we lived in what Susman described as the Culture of Character.
In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining….
Susman counted the words that appeared most frequently in the advice manuals of the early twentieth century and compared them to similar advice manuals from a century earlier. The earlier guides used these words: Citizenship, Duty, Work, Golden deeds, Honor, Reputation, Morals, Manners, Integrity. The new breed of self-help literature focuses on personality trait and uses words like: Magnetic, Fascinating, Stunning, Attractive, Glowing, Dominant, Forceful, Energetic.
This shift is not mere vanity, by the way. It is a survival tactic. In her book The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild makes a good case that as our economy has shifted from a base in manufacturing and agriculture to one with more and more service jobs, presenting a pleasant personality has become a required job skill. She sums up the difference in 19th century and modern labor this way: “in order to survive in their jobs, (workers) must mentally detach themselves– the factory worker from his own body and physical labor, and the flight attendant from her own feelings and emotional labor.”
The ideal hero has changed as well. The physical laborer owned his inner world, as did his hero. The service worker gets things by manipulating the impression he makes on people in the outer world. His hero acts in this realm and must win in this realm. In the culture of personality, what is not apparent to the outer world might as well not exist. If good intentions do not yield good results– directly for the person who is the viewpoint character– what is the point? We can’t abide by a story like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth where the main character’s self-sacrifice is a secret shared only with the reader. We may not change the story to the extent that Lily Bart lives happily ever after, but in the modern film version we at least have to see that someone in her world learns what she did.
The most dramatic story in a culture of character, however, is one that gives the reader a glimpse of someone who has a strong moral center. The best test of that character is what a person does when his goodness goes completely unrewarded and unknown. The tragic end of the 19th Century is just as idealistic and uplifting in its own way as the requisite “happy ending” of our times.
Both types of endings provide reassurance. In modern culture we want to reassure audiences that they can win against all odds and that their efforts will be recognized eventually. More reassuring to those living in a culture of character was the idea that a person could maintain ideals and morality in the face of the greatest hardship and unfairness.