The coveted status of parenthood asks for a long list of qualifications. Among others, you need to have patience in plentiful amounts, altruism of an infinite degree, and most certainly the art of story telling, especially when your kids are little and innocent. The skill of crafting tales comes in handy in numerous situations, be it while putting them to sleep or pacifying them in a difficult moment.
I am reminded of an incident that happened many years ago while watching a movie. In this film, the main character, who happened to be played by my child’s favorite actor, dies, so we came up with our own sweet narrative. We made our boy happy by saying that the hero did not actually die; he just disappeared like an angel. Our tiny imp bought the story till a few years later when an older friend spilled the beans by telling him that we had invented that version to stop him from crying.
Happiness is that universal state of well being that we all aspire for. Perhaps even the grumpiest soul who gets cranky at the drop of a hat secretly entertains in his heart the desire to be happy. But leaving aside our experiences in the real world, why do we consciously or unconsciously look for a happy ending in fiction?
A personal favorite that I made my mother tell and retell in my childhood days was a folk tale where a girl suffers at the hand of a wicked step-mother. I would cry through the narration but would always wait for the end where the father throws his bad-natured wife out of the house, and the father and daughter live together in peace for the rest of their days.
A common cliché that summarizes life, love, and emotions in children’s literature runs: “They all lived happily ever after”. This obsession with a utopian closing even sowed the seeds for the momentary prominence of a Happy Endings Foundation, creating quite a stir in UK among BBC and other news media in 2007. The organization demanded that all children’s books should have a happy ending and that those which did not were to be destroyed in “bad book bonfires”. Later it was revealed that the entire thing was a marketing hoax. But such a prank was possible only because the desire for a cheery finish line heavily pervades among readers.
When life’s happenings come in a mixed basket, is it right to shield one from life’s realities by promising an all-perfect happy ending? Are we nurturing dreamers who are not ready to endure the jolts and bumps in life’s pathway? Distinguished writer and former Children’s Laureate Ann Fine says otherwise. She argues in favor of happy endings in children’s literature. At an event organized by children in Scotland called “Compelling Novels, Vulnerable Children”, Fine reasoned that bleak endings in children’s books work against their psyche by giving them little hope or aspiration. She advocates that realism needs to be finely balanced with hope to have an encouraging effect on young minds.
It is true that human experience is a package where failures, disappointments, and sorrows come alongside successes, joys, and celebrations. But that does not warrant that we always look at life with a pessimistic view point. What happens in the pages of these happily ending stories may be a far cry from reality. The knight in shining armor may not be present to rescue the damsel in distress, or the pauper may not always turn into a prince. However, does the real world not have myriads of examples of rags-to-riches anecdotes, and do we not get to see a good Samaritan making a difference to humanity?
Reading a story book or watching a movie is meant to be some form of relaxation. So what harm prevails if envisaging a rosy future for the characters in your story makes you contented? We cannot run away from the truth that our journey of life is sure to be fraught with obstacles. It is inevitable that sad tidings will accompany the joyous moments. But the challenge lies in our level of endurance, how we can surmount the barriers and reach our goal to find happiness.
The catchword here is hope. It is imperative that stories, along with their realistic portrayal of life, incorporate elements of hope. Without hope, humanity will cease to exist. Our existence on this planet is nothing less than a rollercoaster ride, and it is hope that keeps us alive through the ups and downs with the promise of laughter and sunshine. As Percy Bysshe Shelley rightly penned, it is hope alone that “creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”