How novels and stories end is a tricky business, for readers and writers. Psychologically speaking, most of us are most satisfied by a happy and complete ending, with no questions left hanging. Novels with unhappy endings attract a lot of comment from Amazon book reviewers, from largely dissatisfied readers. Some readers don’t mind if it’s an unhappy ending, but they don’t like endings that leave unanswered questions. As a reader, I am conflicted, being magnetised by dark stories whilst also loving a Hollywood happy ending.
Recently, I read two novels which raised a new question for me: what about novels that put the unhappy ending right at the front? Making an Unhappy Beginning? Chapter One of Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty, describes a mothers reaction to the death of her nine year old daughter. In Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates, the first three short chapters provide three slightly different versions of the abduction of a four-year-old boy from his mothers’ side, the beginning of the darkest, and most compulsive story I have ever read.
So there you have it right up front: a dramatic and tragic event from which, surely, no happiness can result. From hereon this story is going to be misery, right? You might think I’d read these books without hope of a happy ending or of redemption of any kind. And yet I don’t. Even as I read, even as I know that the worst has already happened, I actually hope that things can turn out alright. If I needed any more confirmation of my relentlessly romantic nature, that would be it.
Perhaps my hope is that something good can come out of something so dreadful, alongside the certain knowledge that by and large it won’t. Or will it? A recent book What doesn’t kill us by Professor Stephen Joseph sets out the latest research on the new psychology of post traumatic growth: the other side of the coin from post traumatic stress. Trauma can be devastating, resulting in enduring psychological problems. Or it can be growthful, leading to a new understanding of oneself in an altered world. Professor Joseph puts forward the metaphor of the shattered vase to illustrate the difference: Imagine that a cherished vase sits on a table in your home…..
One day, you accidentally knock it off its perch….. The vase smashes into a thousand tiny shards. Devastated, you rush to collect the fragments. How to put them back together? In the disorganized confusion the vase seems beyond repair. Nevertheless, some people will try to put it back together exactly as it was before it fell to the ground. If they’re lucky, the vase may look just as it used to. Closer examination will reveal the truth, however: it is held together by nothing more than glue and sticky tape. The cracks are still visible if you look carefully, and the slightest jolt could send the vase back into pieces once again. Likewise, those people who try to hold on to their world views following trauma are often more fragile, defensive and easily hurt. Their wounded assumptions are subject to being shattered again and again….. Some people will take up the pieces and build something new. They are sad that their prized vase is broken, but accept that it can never return to its old form. The question now becomes: what to make of it next? Perhaps they can use the different coloured pieces to make a mosaic, finding a new and useful from to preserve their memories.
It’s the Heroes Journey isn’t it? Something is destroyed, broken…. the hero does more than restore the status quo; he/she creates a new, improved reality, spinning gold from straw. I think that’s my hope as I read such dark tales. That surely some good, something new, can come from the terrible tragedies that end up defining the lives of those that survive them. As Stephen King says, some characters do live, and have some moments of happiness.