I closed the book I was reading, and sighed happily. I had good reason to, of course, for the couple were going to live, well, not 'happily ever after' for that would imply a fairy-tale type existence. But--yes, I guess that was what it amounted to. Not the cheesy, fluffy, frothy, happily-ever-after, but the good homespun variety. The happily-ever-after with substance in which they love each other even when the loving gets tough, when times are hard, when they don't know where the next meal is coming from.
That kind of happiness.
And I thought to myself, as I closed the book: was that good?
That just about describes me. After I've waded through a gigantic tome, and received the ending I was madly hoping for, and (ahem!) meets (ahem!) and something good happens as a result, I wonder if it was completely satisfying ending perfectly. Even the characters I absolutely detested perished conveniently. Some people have the blessed talent of taking the good things when they come, but oftentimes I am the one over-analyzing them. Where's the fly in the ointment? After all, there either has to be a bit of unrealistic fancy that unravels the whole happy structure, or there must be a negative moral implication in the ending.
They couldn't just be happy. That's not the way life works.
Oh, yes, there's joy in Christ--but it's only with the realization that we live in a sin-cursed world, and our happiness will always be a broken, incomplete kind. We're always going to have plenty of tears thrown in the equation to balance it out. We can just be happy. That's not reality.
So if we can't, then obviously, book characters can't. Othewise the ending isn't realistic, and we can't believe that it hypothetically happened.
Keep reading, I entreat you.
That's what we're going to talk about in this two part series: happy endings, sad endings, bittersweet endings, depressing endings--which are good, and what are their spiritual implications. Let's start with the darkest, and work up to the happiest, because I always like to end on a happy note. :)
First, we're going to start with an example of each type. Don't worry; no titles, so no spoilers.
You know the type: where you can read the refrain 'No Hope' 'No Hope' pounded over and over between the lines. Where you can sum it up in two words: "Too Late". I can think of a few I've read, including Haggard, Dickens, and Mary Johnston (Not To Have and To Hold.) I remember picking up a book from the library, and (as is my habit) opening somewhere in the middle to see what it was like. It was a story of a man and a woman, your typical love story. The man loved the woman dearly, but she didn't love him. Through the dark twists and turns of a bloodthirsty villain, and all the ensuing adventures, I kept on flipping pages until I reached the Point of No Return--where I knew I could not start that book at the beginning, and read the whole thing without knowing what was going to happen. And sure enough, in the second-to-last chapter, the man and woman shared a tender scene in the beautiful mountain garden. She finally loved him, and consented to be his wife. Needless to say, he was in seventh heaven. And I thought, well, I'll just finish up the last chapter and then go back and read the whole thing. I was shocked. In the few remaining pages, the villain entered, stabbed the woman, and died himself. She expired in great pain, amidst the tears of her anguished sweetheart. And that was that. I never went back and read the beginning. I couldn't bear to undergo that torment twice.
Sad endings are not necessarily depressing, for they often hold notes of sweetness, of hope, of relief from pain--or of triumphant martyrdom. Take for instance, the story of a man who has lived for all his life, repentant of former sin, but unforgiven and hunted by those he has offended. He lives repaying good for evil, yet ever on the run from those trying to drag him back to darkness. One by one he touches and restores, heals and blesses the weak and the wicked. He even forgoes revenge when he has the chance of obliterating his foes. There is no release. Over and over, he flees from his established home, moves on, finds others to help and bless. Due to the nature of his foes, there can be no release. Except the great release--Death.
And that is the release he receives. By the end, I was sad to part ways with him, but happy to see him go. For being a devout Christian, he was going to his Father to receive rest and reward for all his labors--freedom from his tormentors.
Oh, there are many of these. Sometimes 'sad' and 'bittersweet' are hard to separate, but I use this general rule of thumb: if the overarching theme contains heartache that has been healed or put to rest, then that is a bittersweet ending. It's the story where the character didn't make all the right choices, or lost someone they loved, but they repented or healed, and moved on to hope. I didn't used to like these stories--it had to be all happy, or I wanted nothing to do with it. But now I've come to appreciate them more. This is the story of the man who spent his whole life pursuing revenge, wreaking havoc and hate on the people who did him wrong, but who suddenly realizes that his revenge backfired and brought more woe than he ever intended. Innocent people died. Husbands and wives divorced. Men went insane. And he couldn't stop himself--he had held too tightly too long to let his final piece of revenge go. The woman he formerly loved lost her beauty, and her son enlisted in utter poverty. Rich daughters were disgraced. Good men suffered. A whole tier of society crumbled to the dust. And in the end, he saw his work and was appalled. He repented. He used his power to bring as much restoration as he could to the innocents he had wronged, and brought happiness to other deserving friends. And then he left society forever to repent of his actions, taking with him only the person who would be left destitute if he did not let her come with him. It ends with anguish for the past, yet hope of better things for the future--in fact, the last word of the book is the word 'hope'.
You can probably name these by the score, so I won't give a specific illustration. Happy endings are not necessarily devoid of hardship and suffering in the former pages, but by the end, the hardships are a faint memory. The lady is his wife. The war is diverted. The murderer is caught. The game is won. Poverty has turned to riches, and in some cases back to poverty again, but the characters are perfectly content in their lot. The wilderness is tamed. The wrong is put right.
Within a book, there are many endings. There is the overarching ending to the main struggle, and then each character and subplot has an ending. Most likely there will be a mix of these different types we've discussed. Some characters will end with 'Too Late'. Some will end in a sweet sadness, like the fragrance of crushed flower petals. Some will end with the word 'hope.' Some will end with their troubles all behind them, and golden pathways ahead.
But which ones are right and which ones are wrong to the Christian bibliophile? And what conclusion did I come to regarding the story I started with?
Come back next Tuesday to find out. :)