A year ago, I attended a writers’ conference in Washington, DC, with the Hedge Apple Magazine, which I was editing at the time. The cost of the conference covered a free subscription to a magazine of my choice, and I selected American Short Fiction, since I wanted to be more familiar with the fiction that is being published today.
When, months later, I received my first issue, I was unimpressed, though not entirely surprised, by its contents.
The issue contained a story told from the perspective of a brutal serial killer (with all events described in gory and relishing detail), several stories of dysfunctional relationships, and an account of a kidnapped child which ended in a happy ending so too-good-to-be-true as to be a mockery of the entire concept of happy endings. None of the stories contained a positive philosophy of life, unless you count the one about the serial killer. Not one of them contained an actual happy ending.
I have been told that happy endings are “unrealistic” and that “real life” demands us to write stories that end negatively, since tragedy and meaninglessness are more representative of the human condition. Often, it has seemed to me, this translates into depressing and demoralizing stories of people slowly going insane. If that is our view of reality, I believe that we need to rethink our belief in what is real. In this article, I would like to do that.
Three Types of Stories
Fiction is an extremely broad genre, and it can express a widely nuanced set of values and truths. I will be looking mainly at how it expresses optimism and pessimism through the narrative arc—a story’s path from beginning to end—and what effect that this has on the meaning of the work as a whole to us as Christians. There are three main types of narratives that I will look at.
First, one of the most common historical types of stories is the comedy, the happy ending, and I will classify this together with the romance story form. These terms have many other meanings and connotations, but in this article I will be referring only to their traditional narrative arcs. Stories of this sort are very common in folk fiction and fairy tales, and they even appear in scripture, as in the story of Joseph in Genesis. Usually, a comedy or romance starts out with an idyllic scene—“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours” (Gen 37:3). It nearly always proceeds into conflict (“And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him” 37:4) and then often into deepest despair: “And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison” (39:20). Finally, however, the story takes a turn for the better, and ends in a consolation, an occurrence that redeems the evil circumstances of the main character, until Joseph can say, “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (50:20). This type of story ends optimistically—it expresses a hope for goodness, and a hope for goodness is what the world most needs.
The other traditional form is the tragedy, the sad ending. The ancient Greeks wrote many great tragedies, as did the Elizabethans—tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, Dr. Faustus, and King Lear. The story of King Saul in 1st Samuel is another excellent example of the tragedy form. Saul begins as a humble man who fights tirelessly against Israel’s oppressors, but he begins to grow proud and to disobey God, until he is defeated in battle and commits suicide: “So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together” (1 Sam 31:6). Usually the cause of a tragedy is the main character’s tragic flaw, a besetting sin that drives him to destroy his own good fortune.
But many stories, particularly many recent ones, do not fit neatly into these categories. I have come to recognize another type of narrative arc, the meaningless story. This exists in several forms, but the main narrative that I see in contemporary fiction is what I will call the cynical story—a story in which people merely exercise their animal passions, in which the author often seems to be mocking his own characters’ most noble ideas (if they have any). The story tediously continues, with little change for the better, until it ends in more of the same, without hope of any transcendence. The story does not end in an upturn, and does not leave room within itself for goodness or healthy faith. It is probably presumptuous to say so, but stories like those of Hemingway and many 20th-century novelists seem often to be this type of story (with some important exceptions).
Without attempting to put words into anyone’s mouth, I suggest that this last story, the cynical ending, is the one that most people think of as “realistic.” Those who have no hope of a resurrection must live as though the life that ends in the grave does not lead through the grave to a renewal of life. Those who do not have a worldview founded on hope must see the world as meaningless—no more than a place in which to enjoy happiness and misery, before happiness and misery end forever. A friend told me that since so many people have not chosen the path of Jesus, their lives are indeed meaningless and will end only in misery—and that our literature should reflect this pattern. However, I think that the picture is more complex than this.
Of course, the narrative arc is not the only thing that influences a story’s value, and, even in respect to story arcs and endings, I do not mean to say that the comedy is the only valid story form. Most of my favorite Shakespeare plays are tragedies, and I connect with Othello and King Lear in ways that I do not connect with The Tempest. The bitter quietness and the poignant tears that follow a true tragedy are in themselves a sort of consolation and hope. This is because, when we say that something is a “tragedy,” we mean that it was meant to be otherwise, that it could have been otherwise. Tragedy implies comedy—it admits a hope for something better, and recognizes that there is a universal standard of goodness, even though this particular story is not an example of it.
Sometimes, indeed, “it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men” (Ecc 7:2). The world existed through many years of grief before joy returned to it, and we often experience that grief in its fullness. It is right to recognize this. Part of our task is to learn to face darkness with dignity and honor so that even the worst evil cannot make us bow to it.
Nor do I wish to say that the stories that I have called cynical stories are entirely pointless. In themselves, they are meaningless, but that does not mean they cannot have meaning for their readers.
Meaning requires a person who imputes meaning. The German word Katze and the English word “cat” signify the Felis catus only because humans think of the actual animal when they hear their language’s word for it. In the same way, our lives can have no meaning if there is no one to give them meaning. Something that entirely negates the hope of goodness can have no meaning, because to flee goodness is to flee from God, the only giver of meaning. A story that does not admit God or goodness into itself can have no meaning in itself, and while a tragedy cries out for things to be otherwise, a cynical story simply mutters, “This is how things are. All things fall apart and die.” And by saying so, it negates its own meaning.
But here is the beauty of Christianity—that just as Jesus has given death meaning in spite of itself, meaningless stories can be given meaning in spite of themselves. We can read Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and know in spite of the story that, though death makes everything fall to nothing, resurrection makes nothing rise again. A cynical story does not in itself scream for God, but it pushes the reader to scream for God. Those who hope in redemption can learn deep truths in the middle of a cynical story, just as we learn from the vanity of vanities in Ecclesiastes.
Why Happy Endings?
But so far, I have not discussed the validation for happy endings. Are they able to show us truth? We know that much of the world exists amid suffering, and that death is a common circumstance in our imperfect world. How do stories with happy endings deal with this?
One important thing to remember about the comedy or romance narrative form is that it is not a happy story from beginning to end—think of the story of Joseph. Stories with happy endings, even the most classic and representative of these stories, are notorious for their dark middle portion. Think of Les Miserables and the death and misery through which the story travels before its end. Or think of The Lord of the Rings and the trip of Frodo and Sam through Mordor, where everything is brown, blasted, and dead. In their middle sections, comedies reach down as low as the lowest tragedies and cynics reach at their end. This part of the comedy, at least, cannot be called “unrealistic” by those who equate realism and misery.
No, the real difference between stories of hope and despair is not in the level of darkness which the stories explore, but in the relation between the darkness in the middle of the story and the darkness that remains on the last page. Comedies move from darkness to light, and cynical stories move from darkness to darkness. The question is not whether comedies can display darkness accurately, but whether it is right or realistic to move from darkness to light.
A second thing to note is that stories with happy endings often do not have unequivocally happy endings. Often comedies end with bittersweet moments, sometimes even bitter moments. For example, A Tale of Two Cities ends with a tragic death, and the main character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight believes, at the end, that he has failed. Still, both stories end with consolations. Therefore, just because a story has a happy ending does not mean that it is incapable of dealing with the bittersweet nature of life on the earth; it can still seriously represent our failures and our deaths.
However, even comedies without bittersweet endings are realistic in a way that tragedies and cynical stories are not. As Christians, we believe in a big-picture narrative of the world with happy ending. At the darkest moment of the world, when God’s own son hung from the instrument of death, God participated in the death that we suffer, and in so doing broke death’s power. Since the life force of the universe cannot be contained in the grave, Jesus burst forth with new life, opening a way for the healing of many. Now, those who join his Kingdom can live in spite of death, and the whole creation will be renewed in a new heavens and a new earth, where death will forever be past.
It is this, J.R.R. Tolkien writes, that vindicates the happy ending. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he asks whether the happy endings of fairy tales are realistic or appropriate, and concludes that they are. The happy ending, he says, evinces “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. . . . The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces the essence of fairy-stories” (71). Just as Joseph’s story can be read as a precursor or a type of the story of the Christ, any happy ending is an example of the larger story of the universe, in which things end “happily ever after,” and the bridegroom marries the bride.
This may seem a hopelessly idealistic view of happy endings—do they really remind us of Christ? Remember the fiction magazine that I described at the beginning of this article. Is it surprising that the secular world, where depression and suicide are on the rise, where homes are broken and hopes remain unfulfilled, writes stories that reflect this loss of hope and meaning? Because people no longer believe that there will be a happy ending, happy endings have nearly vanished from serious contemporary publications.
Our stories tell the beliefs of our civilization, and those who believe in hope must write hope. We should not shrink from pain, but we cannot be ashamed of joy.
Tragedy is truth, but an incomplete truth. It can only hint at the New Creation we hope for—a tragedy can spur us onward, but it cannot give us a glimpse of the prize. We should write tragedies, but we should recognize that happy endings are written far more deeply into the heart of the universe.
Cynical stories contain truth, but their truth is even less complete, and cynical stories have their own unique danger—all types of stories have their dangers, but I believe that we are most imperiled today by the dangers of the meaningless story, since that is the story that our world believes in. To those who do not know to hope in goodness—those who do not know that there is a goodness untouched by evil, that there is a light that overcomes darkness—a cynical story can never bring the hope that prepares the cynic for Jesus’ return.
One very valid objection that people often raise against the happy ending is that it is often overused and sentimentalized. We all know those inspirational narratives that seem far too glib and facile to be true. But abusus non tollit usum—just because something is abused doesn’t mean that it should never be used. We simply need to learn the difference between good and bad comedy so that we can write happy endings that do not leave something missing. We need comedies that touch on the deepest pains of human existence, that qualify their joy and are therefore more realistic in this world’s sense. However, we also need comedies that are realistic in the next world’s sense.
Tolkien concludes his essay by pointing this out. “It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history. . . . But [the Gospel] story is supreme; and it is true” (72). The world has been overtaken by hope, and the pain of death cannot detract from the joy of resurrection. The happy ending is realistic, and we must learn to love it, because it is the story of the Gospel. As Tolkien says, “This story begins and ends in joy” (72).
—Lynn Michael Martin
First published on the Curator.
Citations: Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories”. The Tolkien Reader. Ballantine Books, New York, 1966.
Artwork: From The Tempest, James Hamilton, 1819-1878.