Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays are among this group: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and Julius Caesar. Other great works of fiction end with tragedy: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and practically everything Edgar Allan Poe ever penned. Even some of our most defining mythologies end in sorrow, King Arthur and innumerable Greco-Roman tales, for example.
Yet somehow, we are often leery of a tragic ending. I suspect there’s more to this than simply being forced to read books in high school that were full of tragedy.
When you really come down to it, the only essential element of a story’s ending is that the primary plot arc be resolved. This does not mean it must be completed in overwhelming triumph, nor need it conclude on utter loss. Romeo and Juliet might perish out of love and the divide between their families, but out of their deaths comes peace between the Capulets and Montagues. Practically everyone might die at the end of Hamlet, but vengeance for the old king’s murder is achieved as well as peace for the kingdom.
I recently finished TheSoldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy, the book that got me thinking about this whole topic. It is an excellent book, one of those that will remain with me long after I set it aside. But, (*spoiler alert*) it ends with tragedy and just a small ray of peace. But, much as I loved the book, I would not recommend it to everyone. Not everyone likes a story that doesn’t end in an upbeat, happy way.
Let us return to why readers have such strong opinions on this issue. To answer this, let’s look at the advantages to the happy ending and the advantages to the tragic ending.
The Happily Ever After Ending:
This is the feel good ending. It’s nice to close a book with a contented smile and feel a little more hopeful about the prospects of life. It’s a reassurance that, though we might struggle mightily, in the end, it’s all worth it. In essence, it’s a glimpse or an image of what we hope to achieve: success, prosperity, true love.
The Tragic Ending:
Tragedy, or ending a book with loss, more mirrors how life often goes. We lose loved ones, we lose jobs and opportunities, and we rarely see life spin out in the manner we imagine. We can, of course, achieve great success or happiness, but these often require struggle and sacrifice to gain. There’s a certain kinship in a tragedy because it’s something everyone can relate to. Happiness is more elusive. Additionally, if a tragedy is written well, there will be some small victory in the end: the Capulets and Montagues make peace. There’s a certain comfort in the idea that something good will come out of our suffering, that it’s not all for nothing.
From people I’ve talked to, there seem to be three main camps on the concept of how a book should end.
1. The first, the HEA people, don’t like books that make them feel down at the end. They read to escape and, I suspect, find hope and light in life. Tragic endings are too dark and depressing and leave them unfulfilled. They want to feel better at the end of a book than they did going into it.
2. These people crave “weighty” books. They want stories that are more realistic. Many tend to view books with HEA as too easy or “light.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll refuse to read a book with an HEA, but they often avoid genres, subgenres, and authors that insist upon that happy ending.
3. People like me who don’t care which ending a book has. As long as it’s a good story, they’ll appreciate it. I suspect this is the smallest group.
Basically, I think that a person’s preference for a certain type of ending comes down to why they read and what messages they’ve absorbed about fiction and literature. If I’m reading to feel better, I’ll want a HEA. If I’m reading to really explore the human condition, I’m more likely to pick up a book with a tragedy.
What are your thoughts on happy endings vs. tragic endings? Why do you prefer the type of ending you do?