The Case for a Classic Ending

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Mark Twain

In our current popular culture of music, literature, and even film, there is a demand for satisfaction and I daresay there seems to be unspoken demands for only happy endings. Movies seem to have all loose ends tied up and all the characters are happy or else critics will growl about no forthcoming sequel. Books that do not end on a high note are considered a waste of time, or worse, poorly written. Even songs seem to be losing the essence of timelessness and are only interpretive in the context of this specific time. At the end of each song, book, or film we seek to know that things not only work out, but that the protagonist receives exactly what he or she desires.

The overall tone from random personal writing sampling reflects the way publishers are advising writers to keep sentences short and avoid flowery language or their books won’t sell. In depth descriptions are bygone, and using lots of action and little inner-dialogue is considered key to success. Opening a book with backstory is also frowned upon; we must hold the readers’ attention or they will put the book down. Endings leave nothing to fate but always contain a feeling of satisfaction for the reader because we can’t leave a thing to imagination or an unsettled mind. We must keep our audience engaged for this is what the consumer demands, writers are told.

I understand that one of the key components of a classic book is the book’s ability to afford continuity. One may read a classic book in any time era, any circumstance, any number of times, and still encounter relevance.  A reader feels enriched after reading a classic and classics nearly always contain challenging moral dilemmas and unsettling paradoxes. There is something else I notice about classic books: There is not an inherent focus on delivering a happy ending. Stories in classic books are written in a way that allows reality to develop within the pages of the story and consequential fallouts or misfortunes visit the characters regularly.

Think of Little Women, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, 1984, Frankenstein, Call of the Wild, Last of the Mohicans. All fabulous classic books that do not strive to present a perfect world, happy ending, or even complete satisfaction for the protagonist. While there are some modern books with these qualities, they are fewer than once upon a time. I believe it is still possible to bring reader satisfaction and enrichment through an unhappy ending or an ending that does not tie up all loose ends, and these classic book examples are presented as proof of that. I propose that, like the rest of the world, it is time for us Americans to embrace reality and move away from ideals and seeking instant gratification in every sect of life for several reasons.

The structure of creating entertainment to reflect immediate audience satisfaction is completely predictable and uniform, a.k.a., boring. (Think Christian fiction movies – nearly all start with a very bad person. The very bad person gets saved then severely backslides. The now converted very bad person has some sort of enlightenment (usually via catastrophe), repents, and lives happily ever after.) The problem with placing constant fulfillment at the feet of consumers in such selfish utopian ideological endings is that it encourages the audience to compare and contrast personal reality. If our characters find gob-smacking, knocked-off-their-feet love, we begin to expect that in real life and become disappointed when a fiance proposes marriage in a parking lot instead of on a luxury yacht. Reality dictates that a utopian ideology projected as normalcy cannot stand but will breed unwholesome expectations and discontentment. We learn to process the ups and downs of life through other people and through things we surround ourselves with like entertainment. We see how others handle the ups and downs of life and based on what we see we define “normal” and “happiness”. When a protagonist gets what he/she desires every single time, when characters do not die unexpectedly, when reality is not reflected, then we define perfection as normal. How then, do we learn to embrace our misfortunes or process them in real life when we consider invincibility the norm?

Besides being incredibly boring, and casting an unrealistic ideal, when all threads are  tightly woven by the end of a story or song there is no room for imagination or active interpretation. There is nothing to contemplate, critically consider, or even discuss if we already know the answers. Perhaps this is one reason binge-watching is so popular (heaven forbid we not know what happens next!). Technology provides much good for our world, but having information readily available stunts our reliance on analytical skills and relational interaction/conversation. When I went to Ireland last year and was separated from the instant gratification of my cell phone for 17 days there was a noticeable enhancement of my analytical skills, social skills (well there was no asking Google!), and even my senses. My experiences were enriching and enabled me to interact with technology differently as a result. I no longer look up everything immediately on my phone, I take time to ponder and enjoy the process of contemplation. The same is true for stories and songs, contemplating and pondering the characters, author intentions, and dialogue is a process that is lost when that information is spoon-fed within the closing lines. 

Last but certainly not least, I argue that action-packed, descriptive-less, all knowing, sunny endings do not always encourage us to rely on God. Only a hundred years ago our culture consistently faced many threats that science had no explanation or cure for. Looming threats of danger are present in many classic novels and reminds the audience that fortune’s wheel may turn at any moment and one must rely on God’s sovereignty through the good and the bad. When we, an audience, are the sovereign eye (due to our all-knowing spoon-fed endings) in a plotline where is there room for God to manifest?

I have found lately that films do not hold my attention; by the three-quarter mark the ending is spelled out. When choosing music I am driven back to the days when most lyrical sets could be contemplated and discussed with friends as if digging for treasure, and I am prone to seek out historical fiction books heavily based in reality. I’ve had enough of trying to force the ideology of flawless existence on the reality of my life. Instead, I choose to embrace real life and real adventure under God’s sovereign care. Contemplation, observation, and analysis – near strangers in recent years – have once again become dear friends that I welcome and appreciate more than ever. For the sake of future generations and the frailty of technology and even our electric grid, I hope you do as well.


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