So I went to her website and read through the frequently asked questions, and I wasn’t alone. One of the first questions was why did that character die? Her answer was because he was just a causality of war. In real life, sometimes people just die without any reason, and that was how she wanted his death to be.
While I respect her decision as a writer and staying true to her vision, I think stories need a stronger sense of purpose than what we find in real life. Random things happen in real life, but not in stories. Everything needs to makes sense, everything needs to relate in to the main plot, everything that happens needs a reason. If you are going to deny the reader a happily ever after, it needs to fit the story and the theme. It really needs to be the point of the story.
There are a number of love stories that I love that do not have a happy ending. In fact, when these types of stories strike an emotional chord with me, they stay with me forever. Stories with tragic or unhappy endings can be very powerful, but they need to be done right. Here are a few of my favorites, and why I think these endings are absolutely perfect.
1. Gone with the Wind. Okay, I love Scarlett O’Hara. I think she is one of the greatest characters of all time. But her endless selfishness, inability to give up on what she couldn’t have (until she could have it), and her pride destroy any chance she had of true happiness. Rhett clearly loved her and did everything he could to win her over, but in the end, he had too much self-respect to put up with her any longer. I like the open ending (I will never read Scarlett, blasphemy). Maybe Scarlett would change and win Rhett back or maybe not. But at the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett hadn’t earned her happily ever after.
2. Titanic. To me, Titanic really wasn’t a love story. It was about Rose finding the courage to break away from a life that was controlling her. Jack inspired that change, and in that way he saved her, but it was Rose who made the choice to leave everything she knew behind and start a new life. Although the romantic in me would have loved to see those two go off in the sunset together, the story was stronger having Rose go off on her own. It showed her transformation. That she became brave enough to start a new life on her own, without anyone to help her. She built a rich life for herself, became an actress, flew an airplane, got married and had children, but through it all, she always kept Jack in her heart.
3. City of Angels. This ending was very tragic. Seth gives up being an angel for Maggie only to lose her after one day together. I heard that a lot of people didn’t like this ending, but I thought it was perfect. Seth chose to human, and the good comes with the bad. Love comes with loss, happiness comes with sorrow, pleasure comes with pain. Both the good and the bad experiences are what makes being human so wonderful. Even though Seth only got one day with Maggie, to him it was worth the “fall.” Loving her was worth the pain of losing her.
5. Wuthering Heights. Some people think Wuthering Heights is a great love story and others call it a hate story, and I think they are both right. Love and hate are closely related. Both are very passionate and consuming emotions. I think in their own selfish way, Cathy and Heathcliff really did love each other. But it was a selfish, obsessive, all-consuming love that destroyed them and everyone around them. Wuthering Heights is a fascinating story of the darker, destructive side of love, and if Heathcliff and Cathy ended up with a happily ever after, it would have romanticized that type of love instead of showing how truly devastating it can be.
Honestly, I struggle with endings. To me, they can make or break a book. Happy endings are usually the safer way to go, because most of the time, readers want happily ever after. So if a story is going to end in heartache, there needs to be a good reason for it, or it will fall flat.
So what are your favorite unhappy endings?