The sad thing about happy endingsby Toby Manhire
Why we could use a little more tragedy in our popular stories.
“When it comes to popular entertainment, we live in a post-tragic age,” writes Laura Miller at Salon, citing the evidence of librarians and scholars as she denounces “the tyranny of happy endings”.
Dickens and Austen are lording it in the lending stakes over Eliot and Hardy, while, with the odd exception, film-makers are plumping for source material that “almost always ends in heartwarming reconciliation and at least one wedding”.
It’s what the people say they want, and so they get it – “in the age of the focus group and the message board ... commitment unhappy endings (however appropriate) has withered”.
The film and television industries, with a nervous eye on the bottom line, try first and foremost to please the audience, whether or not the audience knows best. Nobody wants Romeo and Juliet to die, after all. It is just so terribly sad to invest emotionally in a fictional character only to see him or her perish unfulfilled. “No!” is the audience member’s knee-jerk response to the death of everyone from Hamlet to Ned Stark to Willow’s girlfriend Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Shakespeare had had fan forums, chances are he’d have been relentlessly hectored by theater-goers demanding that King Lear and Cordelia be allowed to retire to a cottage by the sea.
And we need a bigger dollop of tragedy in our lives, Miller argues.
It’s ironic that in a culture swimming with inane, pep-talk nostrums about the triumph of the human spirit and the importance of following your dreams, we have such a hard time seeing what’s affirmative about the best tragedies. They show us that a great spirit is still great even when it doesn’t win, that aspiration, courage and hope, however doomed, are virtues in their own right. That’s why reading (or seeing) Hamlet isn’t actually depressing, although everyone dies in the end and the hero doesn’t even get the girl. Hamlet’s moral struggle has meaning despite all that.
The truth is that we all lose sometimes, and sooner or later all of us run out of time. Few of us (besides the terminally self-important) want to wallow exclusively in stories that emphasise this fact, but they are nevertheless essential. By not embracing the tragic aspect of life, we not only lie to ourselves, we also begin to lose our ability to see the significance of a human life that transcends mere happiness. By treating art as if its only job is to cheer us up and on, we make it, and ourselves, a lot smaller.