Why do most stories have happy endings? One reason is that our day and time is not of the sort that appreciates tragedy. Though some of us (myself included) are of a tragic bent by nature or experience, it is not widespread in these time. Though the Greeks and Romans and Shakespearean English were very fond of tragedies, seeing in them the knowledge that the noble and great often fall, such realistic pessimism, however salutary, is not the mode in our own day and age, probably because many of us doubt the possibility of noble failure, or perhaps even discount the importance of nobility in the first place.
Melodramas suit our age–one cannot watch Lifetime or Hallmark or other such channels without seeing many such films, and indeed many of the “dramas” of our day and age are in fact melodramas and not high tragedy (though Tom Cruise does his best to give us genuine historical tragedies in films like “The Last Samurai” and “Valkarie”), though perhaps it is acceptable to have historical tragedies even in our non-tragic age. Perhaps that too is why I deeply appreciate and study history, despite its gloomy record of human folly and error. The melodrama, though, only promises sordid disasters and the triumph of the (usually fairly common) human spirit, rather than the often undeserved suffering of the noble but flawed humans found in tragedies. Maybe our day and age cannot deal with undeserved suffering, or recognize its existence here and now for huge numbers of humanity, or its near universality in the past, where there were even fewer periods of relative justice and decency among human societies than there are at present.
Melodramas are sham tragedies (without the unusual and noble failures that real tragedies are made of) with happy endings tacked on the ends to make people’s hearts swell with appreciation at the deux et machina (some sappy screenwriter, producer, and director) that allowed the happy ending to take place. Comedies, even black comedies, are our other fare, and though we laugh at the suffering of fools in our times, or those we consider fools, even if we uncomfortably resemble them in our own folly, such people are not deep enough to be tragic, and often receive their undeserved share of happy endings as well. We live in a shallow age, and so we have shallow heroes. We cannot accept our own tragic destiny if we do not change our ways, and so we insist that our entertainment provide us with happy endings, because we cannot bear the suffering that is the lot of so many. We cannot see suffering as redemptive, or see nobility in defeat or anguish (unless there is some melodramatic black-hearted villain, a cold but wealthy businessman or a wife-beating husband to blame).
And so our movies have happy endings, even if (especially if) those endings are undeserved, and even if they are unrealistic. Our horrors do not end happily, but we purge our need for suffering and the fears that stalk our nightmares in movies that lack any pretense at nobility, are cheaply made, and have endless sequels. No, horror movies are not the stuff that tragedies are made of either. Even here the endings are happy because we watch horror movies for bloodlust (perhaps that is one reason I am not not fond of such movies and avoid them, as they tend to make me nauseous). The rest of movie have more conventional happy endings–with love blooming or business succeeding or marriages or the births of children or the defeat of fantastically powerful and hostile beings. Only a rare film examines the wisdom that life can bring even in death or defeat or those who are ready and able to be wise.
And yet, if our destiny as a culture and society is ultimately tragic, we will have to be prepared for unhappier endings. Even if I believe that mankind’s destiny as a whole is ultimately optimistic (and I do, for all my pessimism in the near-to-moderate term), such victory is not cheaply gained, and comes at a great cost, both to ourselves and others. We will all have to be purged of much evil before we can enjoy genuine peace and happiness, and that will require much suffering before our characters of base alloys can become pure and refined characters of silver, gold, and other precious materials. Why do we not seek out such refining at least sometimes in our hours of amusement, so that we may make it possible for less painful refining to occur when we have no say in the matter? If we want a happy ending for ourselves, we will have to endure much unhappiness to get there, and unhappiness of a tragic sort, not merely a melodramatic one. For we are not melodramatic heroes whose only enemies are black-hearted villains or evil circumstances, but we are all at least partially culpable in our own suffering, even if many of us are more sinned against than sinning, and the supposed villains in our lives are people like ourselves, with justifications and reasons and excuses, rather than purely evil or malicious hearts.