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I read a lot of literary fiction and literary fiction, unlike some other genres, seems awfully fond endings that are ambiguous at best and frequently leave me with a hefty dose of existential angst.
I’ve never been a big fan of happy endings–the stereotypical romance novel wrap-up where the heroine finds love, happiness, and the fulfillment of all her dreams. That’s far too easy for my taste. I’ve always preferred the tidy but sombre endings found in most procedurals. At the end of the day, someone is still dead but at least I know why, who killed them, and that justice has been served (well, most of the time).
There are, of course, many writers who buck the literary fiction trend of making readers suffer until the very last page. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s powerful multi-generational saga about the history of slavery, ends on a hopeful, redemptive note, though even I will admit that it comes off as just a teensy bit kitschy. We Were the Lucky Ones, another multi-generational saga about a polish family’s fight for survival during the Holocaust, has what I might criticize as an unrealistically happy ending were it not for that fact that it’s closely based on actual historical events.
Last year I read The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, which explores the devastating effects of the Sri Lankan civil war. The language is beautifully crafted and the author succeeds brilliantly at evoking an echo of the traumatic physical sensations that violence and the threat of violence inflicts on civilian victims of war. I could barely stomach reading it. There is nothing wrong with the book, in fact, I think it does exactly what it set out to do. But the hopelessness–not just circumstantial but existential in nature–is too much for me.Book Chat: Happy vs. Hopeful EndingsClick To Tweet
I do not condemn books that end with such despair. Despair, hopelessness, existential crisis–these are all things everyone will experience at some point in life and they should be explored in literature. But I prefer stories that end with in hope, even if it comes at great cost. That’s part of the reason why I love Homegoing, We Were the Lucky Ones, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, The Lord of the Rings, and even Harry Potter so much. People suffer. People die. Incredible loss is felt. But there is hope–hope for healing, hope for future generations, and hope for anyone who doubts whether fighting for good can really make a difference.
I don’t need happy endings. In fact, I usually think they’re full of shit. What I do need is a hopeful ending–an acknowledgement that we are more than the sum of our physical parts and that the significance of our actions extends beyond the span of our brief lives.
Maybe that’s my faith talking, but I do believe that everyone, regardless of religion (or lack thereof) needs stories that inspire hope, that give us a reason to put one foot in front of the other, even when it seems futile.
Are you a sucker for a happy ending? Do you prefer hopeful endings or endings that leave you with a feeling of existential angst?