Thursday, August 30, 2012

When do sad endings work?

When I started this series, I got briefly distracted by talking about dark themes in fiction rather than what I’d originally intended to talk about: stories that are dark and depressing through and through, sad endings and all. For a lot of people, that sad ending is a deal breaker. I’m saving why it works for me to next week (partly because I’m still figuring it out). But for this week, I want to talk about when those sad endings can work.

There is an inherent difficulty in talking about endings in that it guarantees spoilers for those not familiar with the material. To at least minimize the spoilers, I’m discussing things that have been published/released more than ten years ago (except for the Flash Fiction Online stuff, but I’m not sure how much you all read the ‘zine anyway). Feel free to avoid this entirely if you don’t like any spoilers. I won’t be offended.
It’s not done for cheap emotional reasons
Of course, not all sad endings work for me. There are the ones that just seem to be done to provoke emotion in the reader. To prove a point, maybe. Like the theme of Cold Mountain, which is “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Okay, that’s great. I even agree with it. But by making that the theme of the story, it cheapens the hero’s journey. He went through all of that hardship, all of that struggle to reach his girl, just to get killed off. It seemed less like a natural outgrowth of the plot and more of the author twisting the story to get his point across. And speaking of twists…

It’s not a random twist ending
I can’t recall any examples of this at the moment. Perhaps because it’s something I mainly see in slush. You know, everything’s going hunky dory, the main character is suddenly struggling toward some goal, and then WHAM, car accident. Or serial killer, zombies, dragons, robots, sudden and inexplicable desire for suicide (not making that last one up). If you want to do a twist ending right, see MaryAnn’s excellent post from a while back.

It’s a natural outgrowth of the story
This, of course, is the opposite of the other two. It’s a natural direction the story takes, either by the skill of the author, or because of the theme of the story. For any of these, there is always hope of that the characters will prevail, but it’s clear from the subject matter that it’s likely that things will not end happily for the characters. For example, the film Requiem for a Dream is about drug addicts. It’s a wonderful, well done film that I’m not sure I’ll ever watch again. It ended rather poorly all around. I had hopes that the characters would escape their struggles, but I wasn’t shocked when they didn’t.  

And then there’s the internationally recognized Most Depressing Book Ever, “A Fine Balance,” by Rohinton Mistry.  I give it this label because I was talking to Sarah about this series, and I mentioned that I wanted to talk about the most depressing book ever, and she right away said, “Is it A Fine Balance?” and I said “HOW DID YOU KNOW???”  For me, it beats other depressing novels like 1984 and The Bell Jar, no contest.

Anyway, A Fine Balance works for much of the same reasons that Requiem for a Dream does: the quality of the prose, and the setup. The novel is never anything but bleak, though the ending chapters really do make you want to curl up in a corner because the world is a terrible, terrible place and there’s nothing you can do about it. (How I could possibly enjoy that book is again a subject for next week, though wild zombies couldn’t force me to ever read it again.)

Perhaps other people would find those to be the author trying to make a point, either about drug addiction or the casual cruelty of life. But for these two works, the quality of the presentation sets them above that, in my opinion.

There is beauty and wonder mixed in with the sorrow
I come across this story most often when I read for FFO. For example, take this absolutely gorgeous piece we published a little while back, and one of my all-time favorites. Go on, read it. It's fewer than 1000 words! And I promise it's not hideously depressing. Just a little sad.
For this sort of story, the ending is sad, but the imagery and the prose are so lovely that I can't help but fall in love with it.  As another example, this story has less of the lovely imagery, but is still emotionally compelling. I have to say, I think it'd be even better without that last paragraph, but I'm picky like that.
Best of all, these stories have impact. Even though they're short, they stick with you - not like pine sap that never washes off your hand no matter how much soap you use, but something that stays with you emotionally, that makes you think. And that, in any category of fiction, is something worth reading.

And does anyone have another entry for the Internationally Recognized Most Depressing Book Ever?


  1. Anna Karinina. It's been a while, so I might be remembering it wrong, but it seems like Tolstoy ended the story sadly, and then added a more hopeful chapter at the end. But what sticks with me is the utter bleakness.

    The Grapes of Wrath. I read The Grapes of Wrath as a teenager, and it changed me. Before then, I'd thought there was no situation so bleak that you couldn't rise out of it with a little bit of elbow grease. The Grapes of Wrath taught me that there are some situations so dreadful that there is no way to get out of them without someone else's kindness.

    1. Ah, yes, The Grapes of Wrath. I forgot about that one - I think I rather blocked it from my memory. I read Anna Karenina a few years back; I thought that particular ending was really well done, even though I usually dislike that particular sort of ending (being deliberately vague).

  2. Great Post Sabrina!

    I like sad endings when I feel they have a point. If I'm going to suffer that heartache, it better not be for nothing. A few of my favorite sad endings that spring to mind are Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, and A Streetcar Named Desire. All of them have really powerful and brilliant endings that are depressing.

    1. Excellent point, MaryAnn. And I think that Steinbeck's novels work particularly well now as a portrait of an era. I think Cannery Row suceeds in that way as well. It's rather thin on plot but amazing on scenery and character (and much less depressing). I think Of Mice and Men is definitely one of the saddest books ever; I cried harder at the movie version in particular than I have at almost any other (cried pretty hard at the Joy Luck Club too).

      I've never read A Streetcar Named Desire. Seems like a good thing to add to my classics reading list.

      And did you guys see that they're making movies of both Anna Karenina and Great Gatsby? Several nice, depressing films for the year to come!

  3. Bridge to Terabithia. Cute book made brilliant by a sad ending.

    I think sad endings obviously don't always work, but when they do, they become favorites.


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