In Defense of the Happy Ending

Happy endings have a pretty lousy reputation in modern culture. They’re considered childish, naïve, and worst of all, unrealistic.  Let us all gasp in horror at the audacity of creating fictitious scenarios in fiction, of all places!

Obviously, I find this viewpoint simplistic at best and downright nihilistic at its worst. Why don’t we dispel, right away, the myth that darkness and grittiness and doom and gloom are more realistic? Real life is not composed exclusively of bad endings. Nor, I acknowledge, is it composed exclusively of good endings. It’s not really composed of endings at all. Endings, and beginnings, are all matter of perception, of constructing a sort of narrative out of the rather random happenings of reality. You might dispute this by pointing out that birth and death are rather obvious starts and finishes in a story. Sure. But you could just as easily argue that if you were creating a family saga, one individual’s birth or death could mark merely the beginning or end of a chapter, only one part of a much greater, overarching generational tale. The beginning and end of a war could be a self-contained story, or it could be one more step in the broader chronicle of a country’s history. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Stories are, by nature, fabrications. Whether they’re purely fictional or an artful presentation of historical facts, they must be crafted into a narrative that requires a deliberate shaping by a writer.

So dark stories are not more realistic than optimistic ones. But we’re not really talking about literal realism here, are we? A plain, unfabricated relation of events as they tend to happen wouldn’t make much of a story at all — “He got out of bed. He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast. He drove to work. He had a conversation with a co-worker that will have no bearing on future events” — but we do want to offer something that our readers feel is realistic, even if it takes place in the most fantastic of settings. We want to ease a little bit of that burden of suspension of disbelief.  And when a story has no complications, no significant obstacles to overcome, nothing but an easy happy ending, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. It doesn’t feel realistic. I think, at the end of it all, that’s what people mean when they say happy endings aren’t realistic.

Obviously, as an avid reader and writer of speculative fiction, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief than otherwise. I don’t mind if the worldbuilding is fabulously unrealistic compared to the actual world, as long as it has decent inner consistency and an engaging story. In fact, I’d rather that the story didn’t hew too closely to real-world happenings. Why? Well, if I wanted to read stories that matched up with reality, I wouldn’t read fiction. I want a narrative; I want meaning. There is something deeply imbedded in human nature, I believe, that drives us to create narratives out of the random, chaotic happenings of our lives. To fabricate stories that reflect reality but have a more deliberate point, something more than “Life’s hard; then you die”; to make sense of reality by stepping outside of it for a while. Some people label certain types of fiction as “mere escapism,” spoken with a contemptuous sniff. But I fully embrace the notion of escapism as a positive feature of fiction. Its purpose is not to deny the existence of real life, not by any means; it gives us a place to examine all the deep questions of life from a fresh perspective. And if it’s truly good fiction, then it allows us to come back to reality with a renewed ability to cope with it.

Grim and gritty fiction, I feel, has very little to offer me in terms of coping with the real world. It presents just as fabricated a view on reality as optimistic fiction, but it leaves me bereft and hopeless instead of invigorated and hopeful. Even if the world really were as dark and pointless as such fiction seems to say, why embrace that? Why wallow in cynicism without relief? And for heaven’s sake, why do fantasy authors insist on claiming that the truly brutal stuff, particularly the violence against women, is a conscientious choice to hew to “realism” when they’ll happily include wizards and dragons and zombies? I’m not buying it, guys.

I’m not calling for stories without conflict. Those are hardly stories at all. (Though I might argue that a better word is complication. A good epiphany-tale, for example, has little conflict but plenty of complications as a character rises nearer and near to enlightenment.) I want to see the characters struggle and strive; that’s how I relate to them, as someone who’s struggling and striving through life myself. But I want to see a purpose to the struggle. I don’t want a happy ending that hasn’t been earned, but if it has been earned, then those characters darn well better get it.

I might as well include an example from my favorite thing to obsess about. The original trilogy of Star Wars has a happy ending, not because it ignores the existence of darkness and evil, but because it stares that evil right in the face and conquers it. It’s bittersweet, full of sacrifice and loss, but it is an earned, much-deserved happy ending. (Which is why, among many other reasons, I reject the Disney movie’s notion of “Ha ha just kidding nobody really lived happily ever after.) On the other hand, the prequel trilogy was written as a tragedy, and I fully expected a sad ending. Not a despairing, nothing-matters-what’s-the-point-of-trying ending, but sorrow with only the promise of hope many years in the future. It would have been unearned, not to mention bizarre, if Episode III hadn’t ended in tragedy. Different stories call for different endings. But there’s an enormous difference between a story of relentless bleakness where there’s no real distinguishing between the consequences of good or bad behaviors, versus a story where bad choices lead to sorrow. Yes, I like my stories to be moral. Not obnoxiously moralistic, but definitely moral.

Lucas himself sums it up pretty darn well: “Being a pessimist doesn’t seem to accomplish anything…if I wanted to change the world it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid. The way to make things progress is to point people in the right direction, to show how wonderful life can be. Tearing things down, being pessimistic makes people simply accept the conditions that prevail. Whereas if you give them hope and point them in the right direction, things are more likely to get better.”

Fans of Tolkien might have already recognized that I also share a lot of his ethos when it comes to the purpose of stories. I’m going to finish with a quote from him.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

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