Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“And they lived happily ever after…”

with 6 comments

Harold Bloom

In old age, I accept unhappy endings in Shakespearean tragedy, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, but back away from them in lesser works. Desdemona, Cordelia, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina are slain by their creators, and we are compelled to absorb the greatness of the loss. Perhaps it trains us to withstand better the terrible deaths of friends, family, and lovers, and to contemplate more stoically our own dissolution. But I increasingly avoid most movies with unhappy endings, since few among them aesthetically earn the suffering they attempt to inflict upon us.

Harold Bloom, Genius

I’m starting to feel the same way. For most of my life, I’ve never shied away from works of art with unhappy endings: in movies, the list begins and ends with Vertigo, the greatest of all sucker punches ever inflicted on an audience, and includes films as different as The Red Shoes, The Third Man, and Dancer in the Dark. When I’m given a choice between ambiguous interpretations, as in Inception, I’m often inclined to go with the darker reading. But as time goes on, I’ve found that I prefer happy endings, both from a purely technical standpoint and as a matter of personal taste.

Which isn’t to say that unhappy endings can’t work. Yesterday, I cited Bruno Bettelheim on the subject of fairy tales, which invariably end on an unambiguously happy note to encourage children to absorb their implicit lessons about life. As adults, our artistic needs are more complicated, if not entirely dissimilar. An unhappy ending of the sort that we find in the myth of Oedipus or Madame Bovary is psychological training of a different sort, preparing us, as Bloom notes, for the tragic losses that we all eventually experience. Just as scary movies acquaint us with feelings of terror that we’d rarely feel under ordinary circumstances, great works of art serve as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, expanding our capacity to feel in ways that would never happen if we only drew on the material of our everyday lives. If the happy endings in fairy tales prepare and encourage children to venture outside the safe confines of family into the wider world, unhappy endings in adult fiction do the opposite: they turn our attention inward, forcing us to scrutinize aspects of ourselves that we’ve been trained to avoid as we focus on our respectable adult responsibilities.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

In order for this to work, though, that unhappiness has to be authentically earned, and the number of works that pull it off is vanishingly small. Endings, whether happy or unhappy, are very hard, and a lot of writers, including myself, are often unsure if they’ve found the right way to end a story. But given that uncertainty, it’s wisest, when you don’t know the answer, to err on positive side, and to ignore the voice that insists that an unhappy ending is somehow more realistic and uncompromising. In fact, a bleak, unearned ending is just as false to the way the world works as an undeserved happy one, and at greater cost to the reader. A sentimental happy ending may leave us unsatisfied with the author’s work, but that’s nothing compared to our sense of being cheated by a dark conclusion that arises from cynicism or creative exhaustion. Simply as a matter of craft, stories work best when they’re about the restoration of order, and one that ends with the characters dead or destroyed by failure technically meets that requirement. But for most writers, I’d argue that being able to restore a positive order to the tangle of complications they’ve created is a sign of greater artistic maturity.

And while it’s nice to believe that a happy or unhappy ending should flow naturally from the events that came before, a casual look at the history of literature indicates that this isn’t the case. Anna Karenina survived in Tolstoy’s first draft. Until its final act, Romeo and Juliet isn’t so different in tone from many of Shakespeare’s comedies, and if the ending had been changed to happily reunite the two lovers, it’s likely that we’d have trouble imagining it in any other way—although it’s equally likely that we’d file it permanently among his minor plays. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Winter’s Tale is saved from becoming a tragedy only by the most arbitrary, unconvincing, and deeply moving of authorial contrivances. In practice, the nature of an ending is determined less by the inexorable logic of the plot than by the author’s intuition when the time comes to bring the story to a close, and as we’ve seen, it can often go either way. A writer has no choice but to check his gut to see what feels right, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the burden lies with the unhappy ending to prove that it belongs there. Any halfway competent writer can herd his characters into the nearest available chasm. But when in doubt, get them out.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

6 Responses

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  1. the authors of these characters, just ran out of emotional gas, every great mind needs a rest, great quote…

    bwcarey

    January 7, 2014 at 10:20 am

  2. Thanks—Bloom is still one of the best!

    nevalalee

    January 8, 2014 at 9:10 pm

  3. Fascinating — come to think of it, as you astutely point out, tragic endings, however well done they may be, aren’t always necessary… I guess a reader, without adopting a writer’s point of view that’s more likely to notic traces of authorial contrivances, tends to take a fatalistic view on whatever he or she ends up reading… A good wakeup call!

    Soonest Mended

    January 9, 2014 at 11:40 pm

  4. It’s interesting to look back at unhappy endings in movies and wonder why the greatest stay with you. Midnight Cowboy still does it for me, and also Reservoir Dogs – I found its ending tragic and moving, almost Shakespearean, but I doubt Bloom would agree!

    Catherine McCallum

    January 10, 2014 at 6:51 pm

  5. @Soonest: Thanks! An ending is just an authorial choice, just like any other, and it’s interesting to contemplate how some might have gone another way…

    @Catherine: It’s true that some unhappy endings seem more inevitable than others. Certainly it’s hard to imagine Reservoir Dogs with any other conclusion.

    nevalalee

    January 13, 2014 at 11:02 am

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    obattherbalalami

    January 29, 2014 at 1:15 am


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