Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother Mrs. Winterson, who believed that Jeanette’s lesbianism was a sin and a curse, once asked her daughter, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” This quotation lends the book its title and its central question: what is the worth of the pursuit of happiness? To Jeanette, happiness and love are intertwined and they are of paramount importance—the story of her life is the story of her quest for the happiness and love that have eluded her all her life. Through her investigations into romantic and sexual love, maternal and filial love, love of literature and language, and love of life itself, Jeanette illustrates that though difficult and uncertain, the pursuit of happiness is what makes life worth living.
Jeanette—as an adolescent and an adult—bears the scars of having felt something was “missing” from her life as a result of her adoption, and of having been abused by her mother and rejected by her family and her community. She fears that she will never be able to find and accept love, and thus will never be able to find and accept happiness. Jeanette admits that part of the obstacle to finding love is that, just as she conflated love and happiness, she has, all her life, conflated love and loss, assuming that love could only result in pain. She attributes this conflation to both her and her mother’s lifelong “obsession [with] love, loss, and longing.”
As Jeanette describes her search for fulfilling and healthy romantic love, she is conscious of the difficulty she has in giving love, and in accepting the love that her partners give to her. After the trauma of undergoing an exorcism after her mother found out about her first sexual relationship with another girl, Helen, Jeanette is both fearful and needful of “making [a] home” with someone. She believes—due to her experiences with her adoptive and birth mothers—that home is an “impossibility” and that abandonment is imminent. As Jeanette grows closer and closer to finding her birth mother, a social worker helping her with her case, Ria Hayward, implores her to understand that mothers giving their babies up for adoption “never want to do it.” She entreats Jeanette to accept that she was wanted. “Feeling is frightening,” Jeanette thinks on the train home, as she processes the social worker’s words. As Jeanette tracks down and eventually meets her birth mother, she continues in the struggle to accept that she was wanted (and that she has been wanted all her life by those around her who love her), realizations that begin to allow her to separate love from loss.
“Happy endings are only a pause,” Jeanette writes toward the end of the book. Jeanette’s life has been consumed by the pursuit of happiness in the face of obstacle after obstacle, so she recognizes that “happy endings” are fleeting. True happiness is not a destination on a map or a final chapter in a book. Jeanette’s notions about the inability to achieve permanent and consistent happiness come from her awareness that, though it’s possible to impose a narrative on one’s life in order to make sense of it, sticking a happy ending on the last page rings false. She chooses to end her book instead with a coda, in which she proclaims that though she is content and optimistic, the scars of her past have stayed with her, her sense of “dislodgement” has not gone away for good, and she has “no idea what happens next.”
The Pursuit of Love and Happiness ThemeTracker
The Pursuit of Love and Happiness Quotes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you—and it can’t and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
I liked best the stories about buried treasure and lost children and locked-up processes. That the treasure is found, the children returned and the princess freed, seemed hopeful to me. And the Bible told me that even if nobody loved me on earth, there was God in heaven who loved me like I was the only one who had ever mattered. I believed that. It helped me.
We were matched in our lost and losing. I had lost the warm safe place, however chaotic, of the first person I loved. I had lost my name and my identity. Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go Home.
Pursuing happiness, and I did, and still do, is not at all the same as being happy—which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centered. The pursuit isn’t all or nothing—it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.
Think about, say, Jack and the Beanstalk… [the beanstalk,] the bridge between two worlds is unpredictable and very surprising. And later, when the giant tries to climb after Jack, the beanstalk has to be chopped down pronto. This suggests to me that the pursuit of happiness, which we may as well call life, is full of surprising temporary elements—we get somewhere we couldn’t go otherwise and we profit from the trip, but we can’t stay there, it isn’t our world, and we shouldn’t let that world come crashing down into the one we can inhabit. The beanstalk has to be hopped down. But the large-scale riches from the “other world” can be brought into ours, just as Jack makes off with the singing harp and the golden hen.
I’ve spent a lot of time understanding my own violence, which is not of the pussycat kind. There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. It is better to know it. Better to know who you are, and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.
The tent was like the war had been for all the people of my parents’ age. Not real life, but a time where ordinary rules didn’t apply. You could forget the bills and the bother. You had a common purpose.
When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love—its quality—to be unreliable. Children do not find fault with their parents until later. In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets.
I don’t know why [Mrs. Winterson] hated Accrington as much as she did but she did, and yet she didn’t leave. When I left it was though I had relieved her and betrayed her all at once. She longed for me to be free and did everything she could to make sure it never happened.
I think Mrs. Winterson was afraid of happiness. Jesus was supposed to make you happy but he didn’t, and if you were waiting for the Apocalypse that never came, you were bound to feel disappointed. She thought that happy meant bad/wrong/sinful. Or plain stupid. Unhappy seemed to have virtue attached to it.
I began to realize that I had company. Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways. These writers were my friends. Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.
What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us? It was never a question of biology or nature and nurture. I know now that we heal up through being loved, and through loving others. We don’t heal by forming a secret society of one—by obsessing about the only other “one” we might admit, and being doomed to disappointment. It was a compulsive doctrine, and I carried it forward in my own life for a long time. It is of course the basis of romantic love—you + me against the world. A world where there are only two of us. A world that doesn’t really exist, except that we are in it. And one of us will always fail the other.
The past is so hard to shift. It comes with us like a chaperone, standing between us and the newness of the present—the new chance. I was wondering if the past could be redeemed—could be reconciled.
Mother is our first love affair. And if we hate her, we take that rage with us into other lovers. And if we lose her, where do we find her again?
I understood something. I understood twice born was not just about being alive, but about choosing life. Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos—and pain.
A few months later [the creature and I] were having our afternoon walk when I said something about how nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said “us,” not “you.” She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said: “We will learn how to love.”
We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities. In my work I found a way to talk about love—and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.
Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kids of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.