Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Sad Stories are More Satisfying than Happy Endings

Dionysos mask, found in Myrina (now in Turkey)...Image via Wikipedia

After losing her father, a teenage girl prays for God to send her small town a doctor so no one close to her will ever get sick again. 

She gets her wish – sort of.

After the healer arrives, an unexplained illness grips the town. The squeamish doctor cannot find the cause – or is he the cause?

Sounds like the setup for a comedy – but it’s not. It's the premise for a tragic play called Anatomy of Gray, currently being performed at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS. 

Anatomy of Gray, written by James Leonard Jr., has nothing to do with a similarly named TV series. Set in the 1880s, the play takes us through the gamut of emotions from funny to sad.  But even though the play ends badly for most of the characters, it leaves us with a ray of hope as one character discovers her true identity and the courage to leave behind her sheltered life.

(The JCCC production is excellent, by the way. Full disclosure: I teach composition at the college. But even though I might be letting my bias show, I'm going to recommend the play anyway. It is free and open to the public, and more information can be found at the above link.)

The Ancient Greeks called these types of stories tragedies.  Such stories were meant to make the audience feel a sense of catharsis, or release of emotions, as we watch characters suffer catastrophic events brought on by their own failings.  The characters in Anatomy of Gray certainly have failings – most are superstitious townspeople who refuse to let the doctor examine them.   But do they deserve their fates, as certain characters in Greek tragedies do?

Only a heartless (fill in sobriquet of your choice) would say yes.

So, why do we do it?  Why do we watch or read sad stories? 

Simply put, sad stories satisfy needs that happy endings cannot.

Sad stories force us to respect the fragility of life.  When characters we’ve come to know suffer, we care about them.  We know the same things can happen to us and our loved ones – or have already happened.

Sad stories make the “good times” even better.  The teenage girl’s crush on the doctor is played for laughs, but this very ordinary circumstance takes on even greater significance as the tragedy unfolds.  The humor magnifies the tragedy and vice versa.

Sad stories make profound statements about the human condition.  Some wonk once tried to discourage writers from having anything meaningful to say in their stories by suggesting that, if he wanted to send a message, he’d call Western Union.


As human beings, we want and need stories that are deeply meaningful, that stay with us after we’ve left the theater or put down the book, that challenge us, provoke us, make us think and feel.

This does not mean that every story must rely on gloom and doom.  In fact, overwrought dramas and shock endings can desensitize the audience or leave them unfulfilled.  Such stories (like many happy endings, where everything works out all right for the main characters) can thrust us into the realm of fantasy where we don’t have to deal with reality as it is. 

Sad stories make us confront reality head on.

Which brings me to my last point:

Sad stories help us cope with life.  Even when characters suffer catastrophe, they can leave us with a sense that the order of the universe has been restored.  In the classic Greek tragedy Antigone,  Creon, the king of Thebes, loses just about everyone dear to him because of his pride and rigid grip on power.  We’re meant to understand that these failings have led to his undoing.

When the townspeople in Anatomy of Gray refuse to let the doctor examine them, we understand how their fear and ignorance make their situation worse.

Sad stories reinforce “universal truths” better than happy endings can.  If you’ve ever put down a book or finished watching a movie or play and thought it would be a good idea to reexamine some of your own beliefs or shortcomings, the story has done its job.  Sad stories, in other words, can remind us not to be too rigid in our own lives or highlight areas in which we need more education.

Sad stories can also reaffirm that life is good, even when bad things happen despite our best efforts.

What do you think?  Have sad stories impacted your life?  Which ones?

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