The other day, I read this piece in The Guardian about literary fiction writers feeling somewhat pressed to avoid unambiguously happy endings to their stories. There’s a lot of hand-wringing included in the piece at the bleak endings which are often pervasive, and references to the happied-up ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as proof that happy endings can be good.
I find the Dickens reference particularly telling because I’ve always felt the changed ending of his classic of unrequited love is totally out of character with the rest of the book. All things being equal, in reality, Pip would have zero chance of getting what he wanted from Estella. In fact, anyone who would throw himself back into that emotional thresher years later has to be one of the dumbest men walking. Even implying the possibility of a happily ever after ending there simply doesn’t mesh with anything else in the entire damn story. I could buy that Pip may convince himself what he wants is within reach, but anyone out here who’ve experienced a real live Estella knows without doubt that he’s lying to himself and, when he goes through that gate, his hand in her’s, he’s taking his first steps toward future rack and ruin.
That is the main reason why I have a general contempt for happy endings in fiction; they’re usually contrived to the point you can practically see the writer straining to ignore the psychology of the characters established throughout the work to make an ending where everyone goes home happy fit on the page. Certainly, depending on what you’re seeking as a reader or what level of escapism you’re willing to accept, I can see how someone might find an ending like that hopeful or fitting to the tale. I, myself, found that ending far too unrealistic to the characters as I knew them to maintain my suspension of disbelief.
I’m not the only person with a predisposition to disliking happy endings. Not by a long shot or there wouldn’t be articles like the one linked to above decrying their dearth. I think, for me, I expect more than a happily ever after in my fiction choices because, in near 40 years, I’ve found endings in real life to very rarely be happy and, quite often, miserable and scarring. I, and many others apparently, are attracted to tragic endings in stories because it’s an aspect of life familiar to most. We have trouble relating to happy endings because so few of us experience them on any kind of regular basis.
Then there’s the issue of whether the happy ending actually makes us feel happy. Personally, I tend to have a visceral negative emotional response to a happy ending, particularly one that doesn’t ring true to life. Dark or tragic endings can reinforce that your woes aren’t as bad as you think. Happy endings, however, can often feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with your failures. I do it with films, too. I see a sad movie and I walk away feeling my problems aren’t so bad. Happy movies, though, just serve to amplify my troubles. That doesn’t mean I think all endings need to be soul-crushingly horrific. I’m more apt to buy into an ending that’s dark but hopeful than an overtly rosy fairytale. Emotional lottery winners are far more rare than the monetary kind. Besides, I’ve always found tragedy and loss far more fertile ground to explore creatively. Happiness can be boring, and more than a little annoying, to those lacking or not directly involved in it.
Romances are the worst offenders at this, too. Despite what Ryan Reynolds might say, the friend-zoned dude doesn’t ever win the girl. All he gets is to cry himself to sleep, alone and drunk, after her wedding to someone else. I’ve always liked the ending of St. Elmo’s Fire because of that. Andrew McCarthy pined for Ally Sheedy for years and years before he finally got to have her but she only hooked up with him because she was distraught over the guy she really wanted. McCarthy was totally getting ditched shortly thereafter. On the surface, if you don’t look too deeply, it appears true love and perseverance won out but the clear implication of the movie’s ending was that his heart was going to end up broken far worse than if he’d just walked away.
If that ending had been of the fairytale variety, it would’ve, one, rubbed salt in the wounds or, two, provided false hope to untold numbers of folks who have found themselves in that exact situation. I think that ending is just about perfect, a subtle reminder that, sometimes, getting what we want most in the world can be the worst thing that can happen.
Happy endings can work, if they grow organically from the characters and don’t press. I’m of the opinion that truly good fiction passes on some wisdom in the process and shouldn’t fall too far into the realm of wish fulfillment. Overly contrived happy endings are nothing if not pure wish fulfillment, both for ourselves and the characters we’ve grown to care for.
All this being said, it still comes down to your particular tastes as a reader. To me, the unhappy ending and how characters deal with that is what attracts me. Do they respond with nobility and integrity or do they drop into rage and frustration-created depression? There’s value in those endings, of the kind we can use when we inevitably face the plethora of unhappy endings in our own lives. The Disney-esque, everything works out and they all lived happily ever after endings bring nothing to the table in that regard. There are no lessons to be learned when everything ties up into a neat little bow of unrealistic happiness.
It’s a popcorn ending, one that doesn’t call for too much considerstion, that invites us not to think too hard about it. I, and many others, enjoy seeking lessons I can adapt to my own life from what I choose to read or watch. Happy endings, especially contrived ones, steal those moments of contemplation and learning from us. Stay true to the story and the characters you’ve created and your endings will ring true even if they end up seemingly bleak. Slap a giant smiley face on them, and your happy ending will end up having the exact opposite effect on a wide swath of your readership.
Happiness isn’t as simple at getting everything you think you want. Fictional endings that perpetuate that meme do us all; writers, readers and the characters they’ve created and/or loved; a great disservice.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron