A funny thing happened to me today, and I’ve experienced it twice now so I sense a pattern developing.
Twice now I’ve read books where the narrator is … flawed, in some way. In a way that says, “Wow, society could chew this person up and spit him out.” On the inside? The narrator in both cases is a sweetheart, perfectly innocent, seeing the best in everyone, and ready to help whoever might need him. In other words, the perfect victim.
Here’s the thing, though. I read both these books with an overwhelming sense of trepidation, always waiting for the tragedy to fall. One is a young adult story (it was very popular, you may even know which one I’m talking about by now) and whenever a bigger kid entered the scene I would turn each page thinking, “He’s going to get beat up he’s going to get beat up he’s going to get beat up…” preparing myself for the inevitable. But it never came. In both cases, I reached the end and the tragedy never came. Both had happy endings.
Here’s the thing, though. I’m disappointed by that. It’s not that I was looking forward to something horrible happening. On the contrary, it practically made me nauseous waiting for it to happen. But when both books ended with a happily ever after I did not find myself thinking, “Yay! The world is a happy place sometimes!” Instead, I end up thinking something more along the lines of, “I’m disappointed that the author chose to ignore that sometimes reality is unpleasant.”
I have to attribute that kind of thinking to years of studying Shakespeare’s tragedies. I’ve had debates with people about whether the comedies or tragedies are more entertaining/enjoyable. Plenty of folks would rather go home on a song and dance number, not on the death of the hero and everyone he loved. Not me. I think that’s just too contrived. It’s kind of like a chicken and egg problem, the audience wants the happy ending, so you give them the happy ending. Which came first? I like it when the audience wants the happy ending and you deliver despair, and then it gets interesting because then they have to face things they wouldn’t normally choose to face. That, to me, is where the value is. That is how you continue to grow as a person by constantly examining the places you don’t want to go, instead of staying in the light.
Is that depressing?
(Having said all that I’m well aware that if you asked me my favorite play I would say The Tempest, and part of my argument for that is precisely for the happily ever after ending. But I know why that is. That is for my kids. For me, personally, I’m ok with facing unpleasant reality and pondering how I deal with it. For my kids? I’m ok with them getting happy endings for as long as I can help it happen.)