One of my good friends, paranormal author Tara Rane, wrote a blog in November on happy endings (found here: http://tararane.com/2014/11/13/happy-endings/). Highlighting the Divergence series, she argued that when a work falls into certain genres, there is an implied verbal contract between the author and the reader that there will be a ‘happy ever after’ for the main characters at the end.
I really enjoyed the blog, and to a certain extent, I agree with the concept. However, I think that someone needs to speak for the other side. For those people who understand the necessity of sacrifice for the greater good, and aren’t afraid to write or read about it.
I lived in South Korea for almost eight years, and one of the classes I taught was comics for the animation department, so this admittedly gives me a different perspective. Koreans, and perhaps Asians in general, along with many other cultures, are fine with heroes and heroines going to a noble death. They are fine with reading about it in books and comics, watching it on TV and at the movies, and talking about it. They view death matter-of-factly as a part of life, and can appreciate the fact that the hero or heroine had a fulfilling and meaningful life before their eventual demise. Movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Anna and the King are often painful for westerners to watch, but they exemplify the idea that one can have great love, great passion, and do great things without having to have a happily ever after.
Some might argue that death is acceptable for adult stories, but that YA stories should always be happy. I think, as adults, we forget how much death we had to deal with in fiction when we were younger. One of my favorite stories when I was in kindergarten was called something like In the Blackberry Bramble. I picked it up a few years ago because I was in the kid’s section at the library and quickly read it again. Surprise! The one of the main characters dies from being attacked by bees and the other has to cope with it.
Bridge to Terabithia, The Outsiders, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Wuthering Heights, Atonement, Beowulf – I could go on and on about the books I had to read for class that dealt with death. There are plenty of movies where the main characters dies, Gladiator, V for Vendetta, and Donnie Darko, as well as movies which have also been considered romances such as Titanic, Benjamin Button, and Moulin Rouge. These deaths aren’t pointless, they serve to teach us about life; to force us to reflect on its meaning, our actions, and the relationships we have with the people we meet.
Of course, my genre, science fiction also lends itself to heroic deaths – we can look at the deaths of the heroines in the Fifth Element and Equilibrium, the T-800 in Terminator 2, Ripley in Alien 3, and both Neo and Trinity in The Matrix trilogy. Fantasy also has its share, Frodo goes to an early death in The Lord of the Rings trilogy due to his time holding the ring, and I still remember balling my eyes out when Moreta dies in the Dragonlady of Pern. These deaths teach us valor, bravery, and the understanding that it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice for something greater than yourself.
In my opinion, learning to deal with death is a part of life – and a crucial one. Everyone is going to die. The people you love are going to die. You are going to die. Better that we learn to understand it, and appreciate the lives that were lived before that moment. Fiction is one way to do this. In my opinion, we shouldn’t try to hide death in stories or reality from our children to coddle them – better to celebrate the dead in the traditions like Chuseok in Korea, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or the multitude of Native American rituals that exist to give respect to their ancestors.
Unfortunately, many of us have gotten to the point where we can’t deal with it. We don’t want to see it – unless it’s just the villain or an extra on TV or in a fictionalized story. We don’t want to think about people dying…because that would lead to thinking of our own mortality. We want to separate ourselves from it, sanitize it, and hide it.
This sad obsession with hiding death, looking younger, anti-aging, means that we begin to fear death rather than looking at it as a passing over, as a reward for a life well-lived and a journey into the great beyond. By extension, we are now unable to appreciate martyrdom – which is perhaps the most definitive form of heroism.
Countless individuals throughout history have made that sacrifice so that the human race can be where it is today. It is the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice that, for many, is their ultimate expression of love. The willingness to die for others is not simply a human trait. Many different types of animals will do this for their offspring.
So while I appreciate the idea that, in western fiction, the most common psychological contract that authors or movie companies make with customers is one that entails a happy ever after scenario; at the same time, I find it sad that we cannot appreciate stories which are closer to reality – stories where people do not survive a war or a plague, stories where mothers give up their lives for their children or both parents help their children escape while they perish. Stories that force us to find meaning in the meaninglessness that is real life.
It is through those stories that we can learn how precious life is. It is those stories that make our happily every afters that much more precious and special.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
PIPPIN: Well, that isn’t so bad.
GANDALF: No. No, it isn’t.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings