The difference between a melodrama and a tragedy, at least as literary critics see it, is the ending. When we look at the course of our lives, it is helpful to examine the course of our lives from beginning to present, and look at what options are available for our lives. In looking at the course of my life, it seems pretty obvious that the options are rather limited. If one’s life can be either a melodrama or a tragedy, you want the melodrama for yourself. As noble as tragedies are in reminding us of human frailty, when we are looking at our own lives, we all want a happy ending. We would all like a happy ending that was well-earned and satisfying, no matter what has happened before. Of course, a happy ending feels more satisfying when it happens to people we identify with and sympathize with.
Among the songs I like, this sort of motif is a common one. I am reminded of a song of Richard Marx’s that I particularly like (maybe “like” is the wrong word, but “I have a strong emotional identification with the song” is perhaps a bit too long to say) called “Children Of The Night,” where the song goes, “I know I’m bound for heaven, ’cause I’ve done my time in hell.” That’s the way I feel about life, although I would express it slightly differently, perhaps referring to the “kingdom of heaven” instead. Anyway, the basic point is the same. When bad things happen to good people, and those people stay basically good, or when we see people become progressively better as a result of the refining process of trials, we want a happy ending for them. We want a happy ending for them in part at least because we want one for ourselves, no matter how grim or unpleasant the circumstances.
The difference between tragedy and melodrama can be seen starkly when one looks at religious beliefs. The Bible is clearly a melodrama–mankind falls at the beginning, there is a great deal of sorrow and anguish and suffering in the middle, and there is a gloriously happy ending brought about through divine interaction to prevent the seemingly inevitable catastrophe from occurring. In contrast, many pagan belief systems are tragic. Both the Greek myths about Zeus (who was prophesied to be overthrown by his son) and the Norse myths about the “gods” being defeated in the final apocalyptic battle are “tragic” (at least in their official sense), but the doomed false gods still seek to overturn what has already been foreordained. The attachment of heathen gods to their temporary power and pride of position blinds them to their ultimate defeat. While one can (and should) learn lessons and reflect on tragedies, no one wants to live one.
When we pick up a book, it is a common technique to look at the ending. Why should one spend many hours of one’s life, hours that can never be repaid, reading a book that has an unsatisfying ending? For example, I once struggled for months with the novel Middlemarch because I was told that I was like one character in the novel, and then I find out at the end that he ends up being exposed as a scoundrel who has fathered an illegitimate child and feigned a reputation of moral rectitude the whole time. I don’t think that the portrayal of the character at the end was what my friend was comparing me too, but it was a very unsatisfying ending to say the least. If the ending of a book or a work depends on a “twist,” then knowing the ending is a major spoiler. However, if the end is something that has been developing from the beginning, then knowing the end can let someone know if it is a satisfying work or one that will only frustrate and dispirit.
Our lives are books, but we do not get to peak ahead. Instead, we are in the position of characters trying to make the best of the plot as we know it, with some vague ideas or suspicions about the fondness of the author for our actions and longings and goals, without knowing exactly how our stories will turn out. Will we find happiness and success, the love of a beautiful young woman, and raise a family? Will we die nobly but tragically? Will we be subjects of ridicule and derision? Only God knows. And he’s not telling. In the meantime, let us all hope that we receive a more merciful fate than would appear to be justified from what we have seen so far, and than we deserve. If we are running through miles of clouded hell, let us hope at least that the Kingdom of Heaven is on the other side.