The HEA in literature is on the Endangered Species list

There are many books, certainly specific genres, seemingly dedicated to the happily ever after.  I would go so far and be so bold as to say that is the main reason people read romance.  After all, it’s wonderful to read a book and, no matter what kind of idiocy that occurs, the people we grow to care about wind up together at the end.  The best authors of the genre will make you question whether or not that HEA will actually be attained while still allowing for that little belief in the back of our minds that everything will be “okay”.  Admittedly when I solely read romance I took the HEA’s for granted and oft times even found myself viewing them with derision.  That is, of course, solely because I am not into everything being all daisies, moonbeams and sparkly vampires.  Errr, fairy dust.  Well, you get my point.

When I kept reading “oh, these two ladies got pregnant at the same time and, after much trauma, they give birth together” kind of endings I got annoyed.  I took a hiatus from reading romance genre fiction if nothing else because the gloss wore away.  How can the lightness and beauty of life matter without the existence of genuine struggle, I found myself asking.  And my answer to that was to delve into the realm of reading literary fiction.  The unknown ending to the story that kept pulling me through “what next” was literally a “what” not a “when” or a “how”.  Now, after reading several pieces of modern literary fiction, I’m cranky.  Really, really cranky.

Let me explain.  Some people think tragedy is more profound than the HEA and, in many ways, they might be on to something.  But, as is the case with all such inclusive/exclusionary statements, it doesn’t always work.  Just because there is tragedy does not mean it was profound, just as a HEA doesn’t necessarily indicate a superficially good conclusion.

Recently I read (and I’m not telling you what book as that would be the worst kind of spoiler) a book that was so promising.  It was rich with thought, intellectual banter, literary observations and wonderful characters.  Then.  It happened.  Not just “it” but IT.  The writer built up a premise and, just when you’re seeing the transformation of the character- BAM! she gets hit with a dry cleaning truck.  What did I learn from that in the context of the story?  I learned that the author seemed to only think true change can occur only moments before death.  Is that profound?  Not really- not in my book anyway.  Besides- if we only ever truly begin to live 24 hours before our demise then what encouragement is there to live?  Surely the idea of death being right around the corner might act as a slight deterrent upon full actualization- no?  Now the caveat to that was the other character had the opportunity to learn from the death and do something wonderful with her life and the author gave us a glimpse of just that.  Unfortunately, it was of little meaning to me because of the reason the now dead, but recently enlightened, character never really lived was because she felt she surely would die afterward.  TAH DAH!  The universe hates you!  *grumble

This was only one of the books written pretty recently in which a main character is killed off.  Out of five full length works of fiction written in the last ten years I read, ALL of them killed off a main character.  One of those books it was good, worked with the story and was quite moving in how it was handled.  Another of the books did it beautifully, gut wrenching and in the most powerful way I could conceive of.  The first in the stream of such books did so in such a way I was downright furious.  It wasn’t enough to kill off ONE main character but the author felt compelled to kill off both heroes and leave us left with the foul taste of the villains on our tongues trying to seek forgiveness for their actions, direct or indirect, that resulted in the deaths of the lovers.  The other two, one of the ones I already discussed (see dry cleaning van), just incensed me.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind things not being all sorts of happy- after all, life seldom is.  But we do have moments, glimpses of such beauty in love and nature that it would do a grave disservice to humanity to paint it with no redeeming feature except in the epiphany + happy = death.  I get the profound nature of these things, to illustrate to everyone that even a few moments of living somehow makes everything worthwhile- if for no other reason because all that came before led you to that brilliant moment- but does it really?  Would it not be better to demonstrate to readers that there is tragedy, loss, pain, sorrow, and still there is brilliance after?  That there is something in us that compels us to process all these things and to still find something to live for?  That life isn’t just the brilliance to be squashed out but rather the overcoming of all those difficult events?  That to keep that brilliance alive and safe within us, unleashing it into our world, despite those difficulties, means the triumph and truth of our existence becomes more real?  More meaningful?

I find it very unfortunate that so many authors seem to think death in it of itself is meaningful but seem to hold the life itself in so little reverence.  The most brilliant book out of the five I mentioned above used death as a means of showing us life.  Not as anything other than.  The death wasn’t the lesson, but the life whom death left alone was.  And that is beauty.  That is poignancy.  That is profound.

Everything should mean something.  And nothing should ever mean more than life.  Writers, readers, let us revere that.  Life.

I’m always open to suggestions so, please, if you have any works of modern literature (any setting) when someone doesn’t have to die at the end leaving one in a depressive stupor- please share.  I seriously would love to read them!


12 responses to “The HEA in literature is on the Endangered Species list

  • jessicabookworm

    Great subject to bring up, it wasn’t that long ago I was reflecting on something very similar. I had read a modern fairy tale book and it had the most depressing ending now like you I fully agree that stories don’t always have to have a happy ending. But in my opinion said book seemed to have a depressing ending just because the author could, it added nothing. the characters had a wonderful adventure, struggled, fought, lost everything, got something else back and then lost that as well…..How infuriating!! Haha.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Yes, yes, yes! That’s EXACTLY the way one of the books I read was! Fight for survival, escape, live well, fight for survival, escape… then one hero does something completely stupid (and not at all in the character’s make up) earning him a torturous death, then his wife dies years later from her grief induced immune weakness leaving their kid orphaned. And for some reason I was supposed to care about the culpable individual’s guilt- ten years after the fact.

  • Carol Kilgore

    If I go into something knowing it’s noir crime fiction or a literary tragedy, I’m good with an ending where the hero dies or has some other form of unhappy ending. Otherwise, not so much. I read mostly for escape. So I like all the ends to be tied up, justice to be served, and people to live happily ever after.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Well, said. I think the best tragedies in literature are those we do know are going to happen but the author still makes us care about the ending. The few authors I have read recently don’t seem to be inclined to do this. It’s all about pulling the rug out from under you to illicit a few cheap tears. I hate sucker punches.

  • Teresa

    Hello, Kimberly. We all know that death and tragedy is a part of living. I want to be surprised in a story but…I don’t want to be totally blindsided. I said the other day that even the villains must have some redeeming quality so that I can care about them in some minute way or why would I go back as a reader.


    Hey, I coming back!!!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Blindsided- exactly! It doesn’t take much skill, in my opinion anyway, to blind side the reader by unexpectedly offing someone. I also like that about villains provided they are an integral piece in the story. [I’m suddenly feeling compelled to go back and do something with that villain in my completed ms… must. stop. editing.] Hehe- agree with you about disappointing the reader, too! I like doing things so there’s a happy ending and people can imagine the “ever after”.

      Thanks! I felt the same way about your blog! 😀

  • Helen Ginger

    It seems as though one writer will do something to break the mold, like kill off the protagonist, and it’s interesting and sells. The problem is fifty other authors try to replicate the sales by copying the “new” idea. It becomes old quickly.

    Straight From Hel

  • Galen Kindley

    This is exactly the problem I have with Cold Mountain. We get invested in the MC, only to have him killed at the very end, not because it’s an inevitable part of the storyline, but because…seemingly…the author could–and so did. Very unsatisfying.

    By the way, the link to your blog, the one tied to your name, doesn’t work when clicked. Might want to check the HTML. I found you though a Goggle!

    Best Wishes Galen.
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

    • kimberlyloomis

      Thanks for letting me know, Glen. I’ll be sure to check that out (or at least use ye’ old copy and paste).

      I felt the same way about Cold Mountain. What I really don’t get about all this is what point the death has in these instances. When writing is so exemplary then to have what feels like a cheap emotional play pulled on you only winds up leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth.

      Thanks also for stopping by!

  • Koreen

    Hi I’m new to your blog, but I had to stop and post when I saw your topic. You are so right about the blind-sighted ended that seems pointless. It’s more than aggrevating to spend hours on a book only to leave feeling cheated. A couple of years ago I read Loris Lowry’s The Messenger because I loved her book The Giver. I nearly hurled the novel at the wall when I finished (and had to recover with a couple of good ol’ fashioned romances). But maybe we need this frustration. It’s like the age-old philosophy that we can’t have love without hate, happiness without sadness. These let-downs make us appreciate the books that satisfy some part of our soul whether or not the have the HEA. I know you’ve read a ton, but if you haven’t checked out A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks you might give it a try. It’s set in during the plague, so tragedy is part of the story, but I thought it had a pretty good ending.

    Thanks for the read,

    • kimberlyloomis

      Sounds very intriguing! I’ll add that to my TBR pile! I have not ready any of Brooks’ works yet so I’ll bump that up on my list as well. The contented ending makes me very happy as well. Another book *spoiler alert*, and one of the ones I referenced in this post was Witch of Cologne– it was so very good, excellent history and characters then the whole world went to hell in a hand basket for no good reason. One character being killed off? Okay. But BOTH?! Sheesh. Sometimes you’ve just gotta know when to end the book.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and responding Koreen. I very much appreciate hearing from you. 🙂

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