Alex over at Amatopia published a very interesting article a month or so ago. In it, he made mention of a topic that has occupied my mind on and off for several years: the modern conception of happy endings in fiction. In his piece, Alex rightly points out how finales where the heroes and heroines live “happily ever after” are becoming a rarity in current fiction. Today, it is more common for a story to end either with the protagonists betraying the values they say they stand for, or with a “gray” compromise between good and evil.
Before we delve into why this is an unhealthy way to end a tale, it might be helpful to go back to the two categories of storytelling recognized and utilized by the Ancient Greeks. The Ancient creative writers used two distinct types of fiction: the comedy and the tragedy. Most would think that this was a very limited art form, but that is because people today have lost a proper understanding of the word “comedy.” In current times we associate “comedy” primarily with farce and humor. Originally, though, this word meant something far more than an adventure filled with absurd, hilarious events.
The classic definition of a comedy is a tale where the hero or heroes live to the end of the story. Thus the Ancient Greeks would consider films such as The Avengers, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Last Action Hero, and The Wizard of Oz to be comedies because the heroes live up to and after the end of these tales. Those same Greeks would consider a story where the hero dies at the finale to be a tragedy. The Shootist, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Macbeth are all tragedies according the Ancient definition of this art form.
Done well, neither a tragedy nor a comedy is to be dismissed out of hand by either audiences or writers. For various reasons, in a tragedy the hero is not meant to survive his adventure – and that does not harm the point of most such stories a whit. So while this author may prefer The Wizard of Oz or The Avengers to Macbeth and The Shootist, she cannot deny the merit in the latter stories. Although Macbeth and John Wayne’s Shootist (whose name escapes me at the moment) die at the climax of their tales, this does not make their stories evil or worthless.
Now that we have defined these two broad types of storytelling, one has to wonder why this author considers stories with “happy endings” to be healthier than the ambiguous finales of current fiction, many of which are neither comedy nor tragedy. Some would say that the “gray” finales in these “modern” (post modern?) stories, where evil is not entirely defeated or where the heroes die, are in fact tragedies. How, then, can this author have respect for the form of tragedy and yet claim that a comedy is better?
First and foremost, I am not saying that comedy is better than tragedy. Each type of story has its place and function in fiction and society. If the author of a piece realizes that his/her story is unbelievable when the protagonist survives, yet flows naturally when the character dies, then for the story to work the hero must die. I recognize and accept this fact, though I have not (yet) had to deal with it in most of my fiction.
As further proof that I hold no ill will toward the art of tragedy, one of my favorite plays is Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano does not survive his adventure or ride off into the sunset with his lady love; rather, he dies at the end of the play, which makes his story a tragedy. Thus it can be seen that my argument is not with tragedy. No, my contention is with the school of thought that dismisses comedic finales – the ones where the hero gets the girl, saves the day, and rides off into the sunset to enjoy an early taste of the rewards his hard work have earned him – as “unrealistic.”
This is a mistaken school of thought that has its roots in the Realistic movement – a movement which has hurt not only many writers, but many audiences. Like the early Realist writers Herman Melville and “Hannibal” Hamlin Garland, authors from this school believe that they have to create pessimistic stories that end on a low note in order to show the “reality” of life. In doing this, these writers not only stop seeing the true, the good, and the beautiful in the “real” world, but the potential man has to rise to greatness via virtue. The specific reason why these authors lose this view varies from case to case; some endured harsh circumstances in their childhood, which led them to see the world as irreparably broken. Others were stripped of their view of the true, the good, and the beautiful by the reformed Realistic discipline which teaches that “happy endings are lies.”
The masters of this renewed philosophy hold that happy endings are false ones, that they make stories unbelievable and cheap. “You don’t want to practice such deceptions on your audience,” these teachers tell new writers, “in fact, if they think that you are trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a cotton-candy-and-sugar finale, they will never trust or respect you again. To be taken seriously, you have to write stories where good does not win, where the hero is no better than the villain, and where no one is truly happy with the outcome of the story.”
I well remember struggling with this school of thought in my teens, when writing became more important to me. Due to that experience, I can tell future writers that this is not the definition of a good tragedy. It is not even the focus of a tragedy which shows the depths of evil to which man can sink. Those stories have a very different aim than the one the new Realistic writers flaunt these days.
A good tragedy ends with the hero victorious over some kind of enemy. In Cyrano de Bergerac, the title character dies triumphantly denouncing a thousand sins and faults, physically dueling their specters before his failing body renders him unable to stand. John Wayne’s Shootist dies with honor, knowing that he has helped a good boy grow to a good manhood. Even Rogue One ends on a triumphant note, with the successful deliverance of the Death Star plans to the Rebellion. The heroes do not escape death, but they have died in a noble cause. In each of these tragedies goodness, truth, and beauty win a final triumph in their hour of apparent defeat.
In the case of the tragedy which shows man fallen into the depths of sin, this is something else which the new Realistic school ignores. While tragedies such as Cyrano present a picture of man ultimately triumphing over evil at the price of his physical or earthly life; tales such as Macbeth are warnings. The death of Macbeth is meant to remind the audience of the eternal price a man will pay for choosing himself rather than God, the ultimate good.
Unlike modern “realistic” tales, stories like Macbeth are not meant to demoralize viewers and readers. They are meant to plead with them, to beg them to remain on the narrow path so that they will not die in the same circumstances as the protagonists have. This is why these tragedies have an enduring appeal which has allowed them to stand the test of time; they do not deny that a good God exists and has the power to save even the worst sinners. They simply remind audiences that it is the individual’s choice to do good or evil which determines their eternal reward.
Contrast the message in Macbeth with the ones conveyed to audiences in films such as Chinatown, Maleficent, and Into the Woods. Chinatown ends on a dark note, just like Macbeth,but it also ends on a depressing point. Jake’s cynical friend holds him back from his desire to fight evil because “it’s Chinatown.” The subtext of these few words shows that the people behind the film believed that evil is a universal and all-consuming force that is more powerful than good, leaving their audience disheartened and dejected. It is only logical that viewers of this film would ask why they should fight an impossible battle that cannot be won. Why not, rather, embrace evil and live quietly, surviving as its slave until death brings them final release from its torment?
Maleficent implies a similar message, adding notes of misanthropy for good measure. Maleficent – whose name the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “working or productive of harm or evil: BALEFUL” – is cast as an innocent led into sin by a desire for vengeance against the man who betrayed her. Her name’s meaning is ignored, her own choices cast as inevitable reactions she cannot be blamed for taking after being so badly injured in mind and soul. The fault is all laid on King Stephen; none of it touches her.
Into the Woods is just as discouraging. It presents the idea that only by accepting their inherently evil nature can the characters – and thereby the audience – become truly free. The protagonist who demonstrates this most clearly is the hideous witch who desires to be made beautiful. When she at last manages to become physically lovely (an outward sign that she has rejected her past sins), the witch finds her desire does not lead to happiness. So she begs to be made ugly again in order to return to her past, wicked ways. Though her return to her supposedly “natural state” is the most obvious, the rest of the characters make similar choices, embracing their “inner demons” in order to “be truly happy.”
Compare these finales to the ones found in The Avengers, Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz, future writers. By the end of each story not only are the physical embodiments of evil overcome, but the characters win their interior battle with evil as well. Despite being considered “unbalanced freaks,” the Avengers choose to be better than their supposed natures. They choose to reject not only Loki’s evil but the evil within themselves in order to protect Earth. For their selfless choice they are rewarded not only with the gift of survival, but with the graces of becoming better people. They are no longer “freaks” by the final scenes of the film; they are shining examples of what man can become when he chooses and pursues the greater good at his own expense.
Similarly, Dorothy and her friends do not simply defeat the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. They overcome their own defects in the process of doing battle with her. The Scarecrow exercises and demonstrates an intellect he does not believe he has while the Tin Man, though he has no physical heart, proves that he has a rational soul and, therefore, the capability to love. At the same time, the Cowardly Lion discovers that courage is not to be found in the absence of fear, but in the will to move forward despite it.
Dorothy, meanwhile, has the greatest conversion of all. Through her adventures she learns that she cannot run away from her troubles. No matter where she goes, whether in Oz or a state other than Kansas, evil will never leave her alone. If she wishes to conquer it she must face it, not only in the outside world but within herself. Once she understands that, she gains the knowledge to use the ruby slippers to go home.
A New Hope ends with Luke triumphing not only over the Death Star, but over his natural doubt and skepticism. By choosing to put his faith in the unseen, in something greater than himself, he chooses the true, the good and the beautiful. He puts his trust in the Force, which is far more powerful than a world-destroying machine and the evil he has faced without and within thus far.
While the end of that film shows Han Solo has not yet made the leap from disbelief to faith, it does demonstrate that Luke’s courage has inspired him to begin his own journey in that direction. Also, during the film Leia’s own trust in the Force undergoes a significant test of fire and heartbreak. Within a few days she watches her homeworld, her family, and all those for whom she was responsible murdered. But she also sees their murderers brought to justice, firming her faith in the cause of the Rebellion and the Force.
In each of these films, the heroes and heroines have been transformed and strengthened by their difficult experiences. During the course of their adventures, they have learned that evil is not the sole power in the cosmos. Goodness is not only present in the universe; it is actively working to make life safe and happy for everyone. This is what allows the heroes to keep pressing forward against the evil that attacks them throughout their subsequent adventures, winning battle after battle despite suffering keenly throughout their campaigns on behalf of the Good.
Is it any wonder why Alex and I prefer the quintessential “happy ending” to the so-called realistic finales found in films that follow the patterns of Chinatown, Maleficent, and Into the Woods? It is not because we wish to hide from the evil in the world, nor to delude ourselves with the idea that there is Something greater than darkness “out there” which can overpower it. No, we believe in and desire happy endings for our tales because we want to achieve our own “happy ending” when we reach the end of our personal stories.
Since I am a Catholic, the “happy ending” which I seek does not lie in this world. Certainly, this author wouldn’t mind enjoying the nice things to be found here on Earth – truth be told, she would probably enjoy them too much. That is why God, Who has blessed her richly throughout her time here, has nonetheless allowed this author’s life to include distressing and uncomfortable elements. He did not spare His only Son such difficulties, so why should He spare me my share in His inheritance?
Our “happy ending,” if we choose to pursue it, does not lie in this universe of matter, future writers. The two ends we can choose – Heaven or Hell – lie outside this cosmos that we can see, touch, and measure. Fiction, whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, reminds us of this fact. Both art forms show how the results of the characters’ choices determine their ends. The villains – be they the antagonists or the protagonists – receive the compensation they chose for their decisions.
Because the heroes consistently practice virtue in spite of pain and hardship, they earn their just reward, despite the fact that they often fall down or make a mess in the process. In some stories the characters find this prize only in death. Other tales allow them to have a foretaste of the recompense their ultimate “happily ever after” will consist of: spending eternity not only with Love Himself, but with those they knew and loved here on Earth.
God Himself prefers a tale to have a happy ending. Christians know this is true because the story of His Son’s life on Earth ends not with the Crucifixion, but with the Resurrection and Ascension. As His daughter, can I justly do less in my fiction than my Heavenly Father has done in His cosmic comedy? Though I can only attempt to imitate His glory and craftsmanship, is it not better for this author to offer what faint praise she can through good storytelling than to feed her audience lies?
I think it is. And that is why, along with Alex and many others, I choose to end my stories with “happily ever after,” readers and future writers.
11 thoughts on “In Defense of Happy Endings – Are They Unreal, or Are They the Ultimate Reality?”
It seems to me the key difference between a classical tragedy, such as Oedipus or Macbeth, and modern ‘Realist’ literature is moral awareness. As you say, a classic tragedy is about a character destroyed by his moral failures, or caught in the tides of fate or justice (such as Achilles and Hector in ‘The Iliad’). ‘Realist’ literature either ignores morality entirely or inverts it, bringing everything down to a shallow individualism at best, where the point is the character’s own opinion of himself.
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Succinctly put. You are entirely correct to say that “Realistic” literature lacks moral awareness. I think that is the main reason why I dislike it so much; the “Realistic” view is bleak and depressing. It boils everything down to the Relativity Theorem: “Life has no higher meaning but the one that the individual invests in it.” That is poppycock. By that logic, Freddy and Jason can always say that brutally and wantonly murdering others is how they invest a higher meaning in their own lives.
Also, thank you very much for reminding me of Oedipus, Achilles, and Hector. For some reason my brain got stuck on Macbeth; I knew I was forgetting some other important tragedies but couldn’t remember them in time. Due to your comment that should not happen again. 😉
I think you’re right on the money about moral awareness. I think that makes the key difference between sad stories–and pointless ones.
One of my favorite movies right now is a samurai tale: Sword of Doom. If the movie focused on the main character *solely* and presented only his side of the story, and followed only his actions, it would be an utterly nihilistic, bleak, (bleah was my first typo of that word, but hey, it also describes what the movie would result in) and utterly meaningless story: Man kills people. Man goes crazy. Man dies. Gripping and absorbing, right? However, what makes the movie is that the evil of the main character is contrasted against the virtue of others: a swordsman who responds to an unprovoked attack by offering the attackers a chance to apologize and leave, a petty thief who takes care of an orphaned girl, a young warrior who does not abandon his humanity in his quest for justice-slash-vengeance.
The darkness is more abhorrent when there is some light. The light is more vivid when the shadows are thick.
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“The darkness is more abhorrent when there is some light. The light is more vivid when the shadows are thick.”
Bingo. Thanks, Riders! 😃
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Right on Caroline. It’s amazing how modern writers, who think we’re so much smarter than people who came before us, miss so much richness in many of our stories. Maybe those ancients had something to share with us after all.
Seriously, reading your take on this, it’s amazing how utterly banal so-called “realistic” literature, full of cynically ambitious endings where evil is never beaten back, are. It’s gotten so commonplace it’s worse than bad, it’s boring.
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Thanks! Personally, I think we don’t give the Ancients, the Medievals, or the Renaissance men the credit they deserve. Just because we invented the circuit and discovered electricity when they didn’t does not mean they were stupid. They knew a lot more than most people today would believe they did.
I agree – “Realistic” fiction is banal and boring in the extreme. Romantic Realism, which encompasses most good fiction, is far more vibrant and interesting. That’s why I write that kind of fiction. 😉
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And that’s why we like to read it!
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You betcha! 😉
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