“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.