Happy Endings

“The Prince married the Princess, and they had three wonderful children and ruled the kingdom wisely and well.”

“The frog turned into a Prince, and had a long, happy married life with the Princess.”

“… and they all lived happily ever after.”

I am absolutely convinced that the only moral way to end a story is happily. Everyone agrees that there is no single story, nor do those stories actually end. So why, I always wonder, would anyone choose to depress their readers?

The answer is somewhere in the writer’s psyche. The purpose of a tragic ending is either catharsis or realism – either to make the reader experience tragedy and thus release the painful emotions of their own lives, or to acknowledge that in real life, right rarely triumphs.

These are both psychologically valid reasons, though I disagree with both.

Ultimately, the question is of when to end. There is no absolutely final ending. It’s the author’s choice whether to end with James and Lily Potter’s murder, Sirius Black’s death, Ron’s desertion of Harry and Hermione on the hunt for the Horcruxes, or Harry’s triumph over Lord Voldemort.

So. Why the happy ending? Couldn’t JK Rowling have chosen instead to represent a darker, more morbid and (some would say) more real¬†point of view?

No, she could not. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because people, especially children and especially in a fantasy story, must be given a reason to do the right thing.

You cannot end a tale with “Do not trust your friend – he might well betray you to your death”, or “Do not trust your own mind”. But most importantly, you cannot end a tale with “That’s the way the world is, you better toughen up or you’ll die just like those idiots”.

And why can’t you?¬†Because it is wrong. It is wrong¬†that you acknowledge that the world is extremely imperfect, and insist on further tormenting your readers with further sorrow. Why do you need a mirror held to society through literature? To see the world more clearly? There is enough news and non-fiction out there which holds up that mirror with absolute unshakable certainty. The people who don’t look at those sources are people who don’t care and will not read the depressing book anyway.

The other reason to write a tragic ending is, you will remember, catharsis.

… well, there’s nothing much I can say against this one. I appreciate the need to feel that others have suffered the same things that you have, and to weep with them instead of yourself. It is understandable, it’s just not for me. When I’m depressed I don’t read or write, I simply can’t. Which means that catharsis isn’t going to work for me.

Little Women is a classic example of the happy ending. You know that any number of things could go wrong in the course of that tale. But by the end of Little Women, Beth is alive and well and Jo looks set to get together with Laurie.

Later, Beth dies and Jo breaks Laurie’s heart. But those things happen in the middle of a book, so that by the time you close it, you have a warmth in your heart and a smile on your lips again. That is the purpose of romantic literature, the whole purpose. To give joy.

Of course, I believe that that’s the purpose of a lot of things, including all literature, all the other arts, and life itself.

So. Let me start concluding before I repeat myself too many times. Orson Welles said, “If you want a¬†happy ending, that¬†depends, of course,¬†on where you stop¬†your¬†story.” The implication is that a happy ending is exactly the same as a tragic one, and it makes no real difference which one you choose.

I agree with the statement, though not the evaluation. I agree that it is effortlessly easy to convert a tragic ending into a happy one by ending it earlier or later. And I agree that it is the author’s choice where to end the story and which it becomes. And since ultimately we are talking about fiction, here, where the story is entirely in the author’s hands, I blame the author for tragic endings.

I can’t torment my characters. Seriously, I’m physically incapable of being mean to them and sending them to sure and certain doom. It takes cold-heartedness beyond anything I possess to create a character, give him or her life and love and joy, for the sole purpose of taking those things away. Since I can protect them, I try to, even when the story demands otherwise.

Honestly, I think that’s ultimately the number one reason I detest a tragic ending even when it’s called for. You are creating those characters, you have complete control over everything that happens to them. When you hold someone in the palm of your hand like that, when you can take care of them or kill them at will, there’s honestly no choice, you have to take care of them.

And then to allow them to die, or even worse to concoct situations in which they could be saved but you throw them in the deep end and hold their struggling heads in the water anyway?

Yes, happy endings seem a much saner option for me as an author – the only option, really. I cannot see myself as that much of a sadist. Maybe eventually I’ll see the difference between people and characters and resign myself to intentionally injuring my own creations. Maybe one day I won’t mind traumatising my readers for the sake of showing them how the world truly works. Maybe one day, I’ll “mature” as a writer.

I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath waiting for that day.

Posted in Fiction, Happy Endings, Writing | 9 Comments

9 Responses to Happy Endings

  1. KP says:

    Great point of view. One that I share, by the way. Well written! Look forward to your second book… when is it expected?

  2. Ram says:

    Good piece… my 2 cents…The Ramayana and Mahabharata dont have happy endings..- but when we hear the stories- they usually stop at happy part. I am surprised they are not called tragedies..Anyway- most of us are suckers for happy endings(we think justice has been done!)- and as SRK says in OSO- Agar sab- teek nahi hain- to picture abhi bakhi hain mere dost!

    • Priya K says:

      Thank you! Yes – as kids we grow up with the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and rarely think of the very serious, tragic, and sometimes even depressing stories contained in those epics!

  3. V. S. Jayaram says:

    This blog has already set me on to a train of thoughts and I do not know where to start and how to proceed – more about it later – it would all be from my German language experience.

    Priya must have been initiated into ‘Interpretation techniques’ during her literature course – the very little interpretation I had learnt through my German language studies gave me such a revelation that though initially I had argued with my teacher over the foolishness of the whole art, I gave in on learning further that it involves a lot of philosophical studies, which were being developed during the 19th and 20th centuries!

    The sum and substance of all writing is that it has basically something to do with the times – it’s all a spirit of the times -”Zeitgeist” as it would be referred to by Wilhelm Hegel: here I remember that instance when Mohanlal and Mamootty had acted in a popular Malayalam film, where one of them dies resulting in a tragedy, may be it was Mamootty. On protests from the muslim community, another copy of the movie was made to depict Mohanlal dying and Mamootty emerging as the vibrant living hero – to please the muslim community!!! And so everybody is happy – and let the writer go to hell!!!

    Ultimately even writing as an art has become subservient to serving ‘MAMMON’ – where are the Jane Austens, Charles Dickens, Orson Welles etc.

    Kudos to Priya and best wishes for the next J. K. Rowling in the making – or is it of some other genre!

    J

    • Priya K says:

      Thanks for the detailed feedback! Yes, I have heard quite a bit about Zeitgeist and Interpretation through my three years studying Literature, but I think that ultimately an author has to throw every bit of training out the window and write on her own :) Literature as an art has changed. Everyone still writes honestly, writing what they see, what they want to see and what they want to read. It is simply that times have changed, and that is why today you have Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown and JK Rowling as bestsellers instead of Austen, Dickens and Welles. It’s certainly not because writers have given up on their art form :)

      • V. S. Jayaram says:

        That’s exactly what ‘ZEITGEIST’ as all about. The spirit of the times in which we live dictate our sentiments and not the other way around that our sentiments guide our minds!
        The entire philosophic world from which also writing developed as an art-form has been guided according to the times in which the philosophers lives – so that in philosophy too every decade probably the thinking guide lines would change – so that philosophers too could make a living! In fact the art of interpretation is also an art which developed through philosophic thinking or philosophers who have been wondering – what guides the mind and spirit of man!

  4. Shekar says:

    Priya,

    Great looking site, nice collection of books and an impressive blog.
    You have cultivated a very lucid style of writing. Would you be free to address our Rotary club of madras south and enlighten us for 15 minutes.

    Regards
    Shekar

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