I Love a Happy Ending

I Love a Happy Ending

I love a happy ending.  Ok there, pervs, get your mind out of the gutter.  I mean that I love a story that ends with an inspirational outcome.  Perhaps it’s just the eternal optimist in me, but I relish the gratifying glow of a story arc that concludes with positive outcomes for the principle protagonists of a given work.  I’m a sucker for anything that ends with the words “Happily ever after”.  

But this predilection for happy endings became the source of a recent brouhaha with my youngest, but somehow most worldly, child.  She informed me, quite demonstrably, that I was wrong to prefer plot lines that culminate in some form of premeditated bliss.  Happy endings, in her venerated estimation, are overly simplistic, lacking in the more nuanced subtleties of tragic disposition.  According to her, happy endings are too easy to predict, too contrived to achieve a rewarding sense of verisimilitude.  But there are many paths to the creation of cataclysmic calamity, many unforeseen roads to the heartbreaking rendering of woeful lament.  Literature, in some ways, is a never-ending Battle of the Bands competition of who can sing the most gut-wrenching ballad of sadness.

My mind immediately turned to the likes of Gatsby, Ethan Fromme, and Hamlet.  Literature is indeed full of sledding accidents and car crashes.  Hating to see her right, I reached for a more contemporary novel that both of us loved, The Night Circus by Erin Morgentstern.  

“The lovers become immortal,” I opined, “forever wrapt in each other.”

“They become the circus, Dad,” she retorted dismissively.

“I know.  A circus they both loved.  I find it to be a wildly romantic notion.”

“You have a pretty weird idea of what makes for a ‘wildly romantic notion.’”

You have to hate when your kids know you better than you want them to.

In fairness, I get where she is coming from.  Happy endings tend to be formulaic with only a handful of finite outcomes.  Love wins out in the end.  Hero defeats villain.  Brittany Spears becomes emancipated.  But sad endings can take any myriad of different directions.  George shoots his best friend Lennie in the head.  In “Flowers for Algernon”, Charlie loses the intelligence he gains from an experimental treatment, giving him a glimpse of what he once had but has no more.  In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor is shunned by his family after turning into a bug,  and so lives out his last remaining days hiding in a bathroom before a gruesome demise rescues him and his family from his wretched life.  Randall Patrick McMurphy, on the other hand, just gets a lobotomy, though this metaphorical death of spirit might be just as bad.  Even in Shakespearean tragedies, when you know everyone is going to die, there is always the question of how.  There’s just so much more creativity in the manner in which you make your characters endure suffering.

But maybe that’s part of the allure of the happy ending.  To do it well requires greater creativity.  To achieve a satisfying ending that is both imaginative and realistic, one must stretch the parameters of the typical story arc.  In some ways, because of the predisposition to find happy endings trite and preconceived, there remains a remarkable achievement in penning one that manages to be rewarding and sincere.

This is when my mind spun back to one of my favourite novels by an author I could, and have, read over and over: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  If you somehow saw that conclusion coming, my hat is off to you, my friend.  In Irving’s quirky but well-written book set, like many of his novels, at a New England prep school, Owen Meany, whose defining physical characteristic is a diminutive stature that is juxtaposed by a personality and presence that are far more substantial than his tiny body can encapsulate, practices a basketball shot over and over during his adolescence.  Given that he never goes on to play basketball or even a single game of pick-up in the mean streets of New Hampshire, we begin to assume that this plot line has simply fizzled out and gone nowhere, that Irving has somehow left an inadvertent loose thread in the tapestry that he is weaving.  But not so fast there, hasty reader.  Irving knows exactly what he is doing, and in the book’s waning pages, Owen jumps up and uses that long-rehearsed basketball move to sacrifice his own life to save a group of children from a grenade.  The ending could not be more perfect.

Perhaps that is because the ending is too complex to be labeled as either happy or tragic. Owen, of course, has died, but he has done so serving a higher purpose, a calling that he has seen in himself throughout his life.  He has died, but he has done so with a purpose, a luxury few of us are afforded.  As he has long predicated, he is part of God’s divine plan.  The novel concludes with the narrator telling us that it is Owen Meany who has convinced him that there is indeed a God.

I remember leaving this novel entirely satiated, fulfilled both spiritually and intellectually.  The ending of this book seemed at once to be both purely imaginative and at the same time the only possible outcome that would have worked.  And so perhaps a happy ending isn’t so bad after all.  Just don’t ask for one the next time you go the masseuse.


Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works.  Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com