5 Reasons Happy(ish) Endings Are the Best

Positive resolutions are about more than just feeling good.


I’m the kind of neurotic book lover who reveres books as objects. I tremble to even write my name in the front of a book or adhere a bookplate, and even when I’m researching, the most I can do is make gentle margin notes in pencil.

But I have been so moved to anger by a book that I’ve hurled it across the room. A few times.

It’s always because of the ending.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, the main character is an obsessive man stalking a woman who professes to be happy. He pressures her into giving up her happy life to be with him, then they sail off into the sunset. I guess for the many readers who were seduced by the protagonist and wanted him to be with the object (emphasis on object) of his affections, this is a happy ending. But I hated his selfishness and was infuriated that she had to capitulate for his happiness.

Book: tossed.

In another book, which I won’t name because the author is still alive, the plot is a delightfully twisty mystery with all sorts of evil characters out to besiege the protagonists. And what happens at the end? The evil characters win, they deceive the protagonists, and get the object of their evil desires.

Tossed again.

Here in Literally Kind, we’re not blind to suffering. I’ve quoted books about plague, slavery, and Stalin’s purges, among other horrors. I started this series saying that the column won’t shy away from the worst parts of humanity, even while we celebrate the best.

And I still think miserable endings are garbage.

So, to kick off the beginning of 2019, here are five reasons why fictional endings are better off happy(ish).

  1. From a technical standpoint, happy endings are harder to write. Plot emerges from a series of challenges that a protagonist faces. If that character continues to fail at the challenges, or if the final challenge leaves the antagonist victorious and the protagonist lost, well, that was easy to write! The wolves are chasing the girl fleeing through the woods…and they eat her. But, if the girl is able to find a clever way to evade the wolves and find safety, now that’s impressive.

  2. Happy endings give hope, and our brains need hope. Humans have brains designed to keep us alive, at least long enough to reproduce and keep those kids alive for a little while. Our brains are not particularly concerned about keeping us happy, and so there was an evolutionary advantage for minds that dwelled upon anxieties (what if that twitching grass is a lion?). Modern humans, however, can dedicate our brainpower to more than just staying alive. As we turn to stories to instruct and entertain us, we can take heart in endings that show characters overcoming obstacles. Our daily lives can feel like barrages of anxieties, from the mundane to the existential, and we can take joy in seeing how another human thoughtfully approached challenges and surpassed them.

  3. We don’t need to fear sentiment. During certain cultural moments, happy endings are unfashionable because they (supposedly) imply naivete and an over-indulgence in emotion. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tess is punished for her fall from grace (her willingness to succumb to flattery) by disgrace and, ultimately, execution. Tess hoped for love and received instead rape and death. As you can guess, I hated this book. Partly because Hardy didn’t give Tess the intelligence to cherish her safety, and partly because he seemed to fear emotion. There’s something guarded and insincere about an unhappy ending, as if the writer is wrapped in an asceticism that denies any sort of positive feeling — including warm emotions. But those emotions are just as real as the scary ones.

  4. It doesn’t have to be happy for everyone to be a good ending. But wait, I hear you saying, “What about Shakespeare’s tragedies?” Well, you’re onto something. I’m not arguing that everyone in a particular narrative needs to get what they want. Only that someone needs to overcome some sort of obstacle, or someone needs to learn a lesson. In King Lear, Lear and his daughters die, but Edgar watches their tragedies and, with the audience, grows stronger and better. In one of my favorite books, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the main characters all die. But along the way, they learn to love and treasure their humanity, and that is the happiest ending of all.

  5. People like them. My father-in-law, when he was dying of cancer, confessed to me that he only wanted to read stories with happy endings. What was the point, he explained, of anything else? I promised him then I would always write happy endings, by which we both meant a resolution where someone learns something or gains some boon from the journey of the narrative. Humans love stories; it’s part of our unique inheritance. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in that love and giving us a jolt of pleasure along the way.

(Plus, I really don’t like throwing books.)

Carrie Callaghan’s debut novel, A Light of Her Own, came out from Amberjack in 2018. The novel examines the life of 17th-century Dutch painter Judith Leyster and, yes, it has a happy(ish) ending. Carrie would love to hear your thoughts on endings via Twitter at @carriecallaghan or her website: www.carriecallaghan.com.

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