Are Happy Endings Unrealistic?

Please be aware that this post discusses series’ and books’ endings, and as such will contain spoilers. The series I discuss are Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and, most importantly, Divergent. If you don’t want to be spoiled, please do not continue.

I just finished Allegiant earlier today, and after reading a lot of disappointment over the ending and John Green’s very opinionated response, it got me to thinking: Do I expect a happy ending when reading young adult fiction? The short answer of that is pretty much yes. However, there’s more to that, which I will elaborate on shortly. However, is it unreasonable for us, as readers of fiction, to expect a happy ending in our stories? Contrary to what Mr. Green thinks, I don’t think it is. People read different genres of books for different reasons, and I think we come to expect certain things from those genres. Obviously, in some cases, going against the norm and/or what’s expected is a good thing because it sets that author and their stories apart, but in others, we readers expect certain things for a reason.

Here’s the thing, I know that happy endings aren’t very realistic, but who says I’m looking for realistic? If I wanted true-to-life or realistic stories, I’d be reading nonfiction, or at the very minimum, realistic fiction, as opposed to fantasy, paranormal, sci-fi, or dystopian. Reading is my escape from reality. John Green asks who would want to escape into a society like that in Hunger Games or Divergent. Um, me? Especially when things are going bad in life, people have a tendency to want to see that things can be worse, that we’re not always at the lowest of lows, and dystopian stories offer that in the extreme many times. It’s a different world, somewhere we can go to not think about our own problems. Therefore, I don’t think a happy ending is unrealistic.

Okay, so here’s where I elaborate on my desire for a “happy” ending. Depending on the scope of the story I’m reading, I’m aware that a complete happy ending would be completely – I don’t want to say unrealistic because I just said that I’m not completely looking for realism in my fiction – inappropriate to the story. It just wouldn’t make sense for the storyline. An excellent example of this is the ending of the Twilight saga (Breaking Dawn, specifically) by Stephenie Meyer. While it’s nice to see all of our beloved Cullens and Quileutes alive, healthy, and happy, it’s also a bit far-fetched, even for a paranormal. It’s hard to stomach that the world is supposed to be so dangerous and yet all of our main characters escape it unscathed. While it gave me the warm-fuzzies to see the characters I loved happy and alive, it also was a bit anti-climactic. So maybe I’m not looking for a full-blown happy ending.

In a war-torn world, death is inevitable, and there’s no such thing as a happy ending. People die, and as much as it sucks, it has to happen. So, I guess what I really expect out of my endings is not a happily ever after, but rather a hopeful ending, especially for our main protagonists that we’ve come to love and have followed over the scope of the series. For example, while the ballsy thing for J.K. Rowling to do would have been to kill Harry off at the end of Deathly Hallows, and it definitely could have made sense in the world she built, I think she understood that it would not have gone over well. By the time I read Harry Potter, all the books were out, and I read all seven in less than a month. However, over the course of those seven books, I fell in love with Harry and would have been devastated to see him die. Now add the people who had been following this series since the beginning, a decade, and imagine how much more attached they would have been to Harry and his friends. How would they feel if Voldemort was defeated, but the main protagonist we’ve been following and falling in love with doesn’t get to reap the benefits? As much as it broke my heart, many characters, including some beloved secondary characters, die throughout the Harry Potter series, so obviously, there’s no happily ever after, but we get the hopeful ending of Harry and his friends having kids and raising them in a world with no Voldemort.

In Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister, Prim, dies, which kind of seems like a WTF move when you figure that keeping Prim alive was Katniss’s entire motivation for volunteering for the Hunger Games in the first place. So it makes the ending bittersweet because it’s sad that after everything she’s gone through, Katniss loses her baby sister anyway. But it’s still hopeful in that we get to see Katniss carry on in the world that she helped make a better place, through all her hard work and struggles.

You see, I’ve read enough books at this point to have established expectations for a series will/should end. Secondary characters can die, and it’s heartbreaking, but we get to see our main character(s) carry on with a hopeful future. That’s expected.

But one of our main characters dying? <i>The</i> main character who has been our sole voice for 2 books, and 50% of our voice for the final book? I don’t even know how to handle that. I definitely respect the fact that Veronica Roth had the nerve to kill off a main character. It’s something that I think about a lot while reading, and I think it’s a risk that very few authors would be willing to take. You can (and probably will) alienate a lot of your fanbase, those people who have supported you and made you as big as you are with a move like that. So I definitely respect the guts Roth has to actually do this. And that was my first instinct.

But the more I think about it, the less I think this ending works. For one thing, Tris is the one that we have followed exclusively for two books, and she still narrates most of the final book. She is the character that we have fought with, cried with, and rooted for throughout the whole series. She fights for what’s right, comes up with the plan to fix things, and then… She dies? She doesn’t get to see that she accomplished what she was fighting for? She doesn’t get to lead that quiet life with her love that she’s been fighting so hard for? It’s a huge disappointment. And even moreso than that, how can you even feel hopeful for Tobias? He’s broken. Not only has he suffered from insane insecurity throughout this whole book, and lost everything he’s thought he’s known about himself, but now he’s lost the love of his life and doesn’t even know what to do with himself. Allegiant ends with the world being a better place for our remaining characters, but I wasn’t even left with any hope for their future. I was still too caught up in heartbreak, both for myself as a reader and for Tobias as the character who actually has to deal the most with this death to feel any kind of hope. What is that? Hours after finishing, I still just feel lost. I don’t even know how to handle my emotions or how to process my feelings toward this book.

Anyway, now that I’ve completely ranted, I want you to weigh on. How do you feel about endings? Do you want the happily ever after? Do you want something completely realistic? Or do you, like me, want something somewhere in the middle? Something that may break your heart at times but that is overall hopeful or positive?

For the record, I have read exactly one other series where a main character dies, and I thought it worked really well in that case. I’m not really sure what the difference is for me, but I thought that ending worked, whereas the ending of Allegiant just felt like a slap in the face for me.

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4 thoughts on “Are Happy Endings Unrealistic?

  1. Jenny@Juliababyjen'sReadingRoom October 26, 2013 at 10:07 pm Reply

    Great post! Okay, I’m probably like you in that I want a little realism to make it believeable, but I do want hope. My problem with Allegiant wasn’t so much Tris’s death–it was everything else around it. It just didn’t fit. Now if Tobias had died–that would have been believable to me. Say, Marcus flips out in the meeting and shoots Tobias. The rest of the ending (on Tobias’s side) was so unbelievable, and then Tris dies. It seriously did not feel like the same story to me. That was my big problem. I think its very brave to kill off an MC, and I cant believe Roth went there, but she deserves respect. I still love the series and think its a great Dystopian world.
    One other comment–I do not except a happy ending in a Dystopian. I like them, but you really can’t expect these crazy worlds to get everthing resolved in the end without a dozen books or so and about 20 years. I like Dystopians because they make me think about my own world, and to figure out what we, as humans, could do differently if the same thing happened to us. Basically, learn some big lessons.

    • Mommy's Reading Break October 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm Reply

      I agree with you. I actually thought something was going to happen with Marcus and Tobias. That ending just seemed way too easy.

  2. […] Are Happy Endings Unrealistic? […]

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