Do Happy Endings Present A False Reality?

Christian Fantasy God

We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.” – Madeline L’Engle

Sometimes I hear complaints, whether voiced in reviews or elsewhere, that books with happy endings present a false view of life, and that somehow books that conclude on a bleak or ambiguous note are more true to life.

Fantasy novels in particular, with their themes of good triumphing over evil, often come under accusation of cliched endings that fail to reflect the real world. But the truth is that in this life, things may seem to end on a bleak note–a loved one dies or a tragedy rocks a nation–but in the end, all will be made new. Even the most fantastic tale has the opportunity to show the bigger picture, the greater truths of life. Such stories offer us a chance to lift our eyes from the trials and difficulties of life to the ultimate reality we’re destined for, an eternity in which every tear will be wiped away, and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

For this reason, happy endings have endured, despite the criticism. In their best form, they don’t represent mere fancy or escapism, rather they cast light on truth. To borrow the words of GK Chesterton, “The popular preference for a story with ‘a happy ending’ is not, or at least was not, a mere sweet-stuff optimism; it is the remains of the old idea of the triumph of the dragon-slayer, the ultimate apotheosis of the man beloved of heaven.”

Though tragedies have their place as a literary form, I don’t like books that end without hope, those that are entirely grim and bleak. I don’t expect a story to end with everything packaged neatly and perfect resolution for the protagonists, but I want a hint of hope, of redemption, of change coming–a conclusion that provides unique satisfaction by foreshadowing the ultimate happy ending to come.

What about you? Is there a story ending–happy or otherwise–that you have found particularly meaningful?

Image credit: Rwangsa


  • Mirriam
    July 28, 2011 - 10:44 am · Reply

    Oh; very good post, with two of my favorite authors quoted! *claps*
    A good point is made here. Not all stories in life have happy endings. In fact, some are downright miserable.
    But I believe that stories symbolize more than just day-to-day experiences. They are about life and the world in general. I believe they SHOULD have a happy ending; because the world will have one. It symbolizes heaven at the end of our journey.
    ~ Mirriam

    • Sarah Sawyer
      July 28, 2011 - 12:42 pm · Reply

      Yes, I love when a story truly manages to give that glimpse of redemption and eternity–it’s part of what gives it lasting impact. And the end of a book is what leaves a specific, lingering emotion in the mind of a reader (at least it does for me), so it should be as powerful and satisfying as possible.

  • Mary
    July 28, 2011 - 11:11 am · Reply

    Personally, I have a deep appreciation for story-endings that are bittersweet. Endings where things come to a satisfying end… but maybe not for everybody. Maybe a certain character didn’t make it to see the happy ending of the story. Maybe the characters who did make it to the end are nonetheless deeply scarred by the journey it took to get there. Maybe one character chose a different way that led to their destruction. Things like this really resonate with me.
    I see the end of the ultimate story of our world as being bittersweet. Yes, all believers will get to spend eternity with Christ in a beautiful new earth He’s going to create for us… but not everyone will get to enjoy that. Many will have to spend eternity paying the consequences for their choices. Our happy ending is coming, but at a very high cost.
    Of course, the bitterness of the ending will last only for a moment before it gives way to the absolute sweetness of our ever-lasting happy ending. And that’s something I try very hard to reflect in the stories I write.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      July 28, 2011 - 12:58 pm · Reply

      I think we’re mostly in agreement with our views on story endings. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I believe the cost of victory must be fully portrayed–or it will seem trite and false. Frequently, that price that has been paid for victory is reflected in the conclusion of a book, giving that bittersweet feeling you’re referring to. In my mind, that’s still a happy ending, because we have a glimpse of hope and of transformation. Like in Lord of the Rings, where Frodo is permanently scarred and cannot settle back into the life he once loved. His loss and suffering always saddened me, but even that sadness has a peculiar joy because of the redemption of Middle Earth and Frodo’s welcome into the Grey Havens.

      If a story ends in nothing but death and despair, no hope, no character transformation, no sense of meaning or purpose–that’s the sort of ending I cannot enjoy. Certainly, some may be lost, some may turn the wrong way, some may suffer and die, but the story has to have something beyond that (and I think that’s what you were saying as well).

      Anyway, all that to say, I’m with you in enjoying the bittersweet conclusions, and I think they’re actually one form of a happy ending–not the fairy tale happily-ever-after perhaps, but something beautiful in their own way. 🙂

  • Virginia
    August 1, 2011 - 11:33 pm · Reply

    I agree. I don’t need a picture perfect ending, but bleak (or even non-existent) endings make me want to throw the book against a wall. Happy endings leave us with hope.

  • Sarah Sawyer
    August 2, 2011 - 2:48 pm · Reply

    Thanks, Bob! I appreciate your feedback. 🙂

    Virginia, you brought up another pet peeve of mine–endings that are rushed, contrived, or lacking resolution. I want to close the book and feel that the story couldn’t have ended any other way, not that the author was in a rush to make a deadline or constrained by word count. So much goes into a satisfactory ending, but when it comes off well, it is a thing of beauty!

  • Natalya
    August 10, 2011 - 9:59 pm · Reply

    Hello. I’m new to this blog. But I’m a writer and a reader, so I was happy (lol) to find it. I totally agree with you on everything. When you mentioned LOTR it just made me thing “Oh no, what would have happened if the book had ENDED with “The Scourging of the Shire” only the Hobbits didn’t win! UGH! That would have been awful. But the ending was sad. I think it was portrayed beautifully in the movie as well. Sad, but joyful. Tear-jerking, but your smiling at the same time. Beautiful. In my own book, one of my characters (who is one of my favorites actually) dies. He had to die. I thought about it for a long time. The book is about Russia. It’s about Communist Russia destroying it’s own county and people and claiming that they are doing the right thing. My little 16yr old “??????? ?????” (Russian Angel) had to die. He had to die brutally by the hand of Pyoter Ermakov (my least favorite real historical character ever) because I wanted to show what Russia had become. Sasha dies, but in the end, (even though my characters have to flee and are never able to save their country) they have each other, they have faith. They may not have won the battle, but (figuratively) they won the true war. I like it when a book ends like that. It longs for Russia (or any other goal not-gained) to return, but it gives hope and satisfaction too. 🙂

    Wow…that was kinda…long…told ya I’m a writer! 😉

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 12, 2011 - 4:45 pm · Reply

      Natalya, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Long comments are most welcome. 🙂

      I can’t even imagine Lord of the Rings ending with the scourging of the Shire. Thankfully Tolkien was a master when it came to crafting a powerful ending, one that brought all the right emotions to the surface.

      It’s hard to kill off a character, especially when you’ve become emotionally invested, but in some cases, it’s the only way to be true to the story. If you approach it with thoughtful purpose, as it sounds you did, it can be extremely powerful. It sounds like you created a lovely bittersweet ending for your story!

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