Tragic vs. Happy Ending?

Upon reading The Octoroon, I was struck by how Dion Boucicault felt the need to write two different endings – the American, tragic ending, and the British, happy ending. One ending contains the death of Zoe, and one ending leads to George and Zoe getting married. I wanted to think about just what the changing of the ending does for the play, since the change is a major one. I feel as though taking away Zoe’s death and allowing the play to have a happy ending (with justice served, a marriage, and Zoe being set free) takes away the message of the play. Zoe’s suicide serves as an important event, and it places her tale among one tradition of slave narratives. The trope of committing suicide or homicide in order to prevent the pain that comes from slavery is a common one (for example, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Placing Zoe, a woman who looks white, into this category of slave literature is probably meant to make audiences at that time uncomfortable. First because the idea of a white woman being subjected to slavery is uncomfortable in general for a white audience, and second because she ends up dying for no reason in the end. This uncomfortable feeling is necessary to the story. Without it, it is harder to pass on a message. The British ending downplays the seriousness of the issue of the “drop of blood” rule, because in the end everything works out alright. I think that changing the ending was not the best decision to make, even if the British audience was unhappy with it.

One Reply to “Tragic vs. Happy Ending?”

  1. I didn’t think about the ending within the category of slave literature but your analysis there seems correct. I certainly agree that having a virtually white woman commit that act was intended (and succeeded) to make the audience uncomfortable. However, I would also push back on calling the British ending a “happy” one. In a sense, the lack of death is happier. Yet this ending not only leaves the British viewer comfortable, but proud of their “moral superiority” in the end. Rather than appease the audience, Boucicault should have attempt to encourage the same discomfort and shame in the audience’s participation in the system of slavery as he effectively created in the American version.

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