A few years ago while I was studying literary criticism, we had a class discussion about the virtue of tragedy in literature and how the catharsis at the end of a tragedy was the goal, and all I thought was “The writers of tragedy are pessimists and sadists, and the people watching are masichists.” I couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would want to read or watch a sad story.
Well, I just came face to face with one of the bitterest endings I can imagine in a book I was rather enjoying. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I will not name the book here, but my heroine didn’t make it, and her significant other was devastated by the loss. The story spent several books revealing the struggles and triumphs of this beautiful romance built to withstand anything…only to destroy it just as it emerged as strong. This happened several chapters before the end of the book, and the remaining chapters were filled with grief, loss, and agony. Emptiness. I felt numb as I continued the story, and in the end, the weight of the sadness lingered with after I finished.
But even though I grieved with the character like I don’t think I have ever grieved before with a novel, I was glad. A part of my heart silently whispered “well done” to the author. Tragedy is never beautiful, but it can be worthy or noble. This tragedy was both because it was more honest than I was willing to be, and that makes me more honest. Everyone silently hopes for and anticipates a happily-ever-after, but not every story ends well. Life deals hard knocks and furnishes our souls with disappointments and devastations we can never prepare for but that we can always learn from. The glory of the tragedy is in its teaching. It makes me wonder “am I strong enough to handle that?” “Would I have survived that?” “What would I do if it were me?” And in those moments, most of us can dare, in the privacy of our minds, to be honest and say “No…I am not that strong.” And in that small moment, our souls grow, and we become a little closer…a very little closer to becoming that strong.
When I was younger I believed in fairy tales with happily ever after endings and could not imagine a story that ended poorly. I am older now, and I have lost things, and I have seen loss, and I have grown more fearful of losing things, and now, after my crushing, small though they may be, I can see a tragedy and realize what I couldn’t fathom when I was a student: that tragedies are horrifying, and that the strength they forge within us is the beauty of the tragedy. Children need shielding form the ugly truths of life. Adults need exposure to them.