Whenever my students encounter a particularly bleak and sad narrative — from classic tragedies like Antigone and Romeo and Juliet to more modern fare like Elie Wiesel’s horrifying novella Night and Anthony Minghella’s heartwrenching film adaptation of Cold Mountain — words like “depressing” and “pointless” tend to get thrown into the course of our discussions. This is hardly surprising given that our current popular culture has warped the minds of our young people so that they all expect happy endings to be the norm. Whenever I get these frustrated responses from the students — and who can blame them, not knowing better? — I begin the cooling of their eagerness by throwing this bleak Joseph Campbell quote at them, taken from The Hero’s Journey:
The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved.
Though I am no nihilist — and neither, certainly, was Campbell — I do nevertheless find truth in this difficult statement. All human stories by necessity must end in death, for that is our nature. To live forever is to be something other than human altogether. Thus, all characters must die eventually, and stories that end in anything other than death are truly “misrepresentations,” or false hope.
The Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece is an archetypal example of this false hope: the story is usually told up until just after Jason’s claiming of his mythic prize, while he is sailing victoriously back to Greece. But let’s continue the story a bit further: Medea, all but brainwashed by Aphrodite into helplessly following Jason around in a love-haze, helps her man and the other argonauts destroy her homeland, and then she marries Jason and sometime later gives birth to two sons by him. But Jason, seeing that he can gain more political power by marrying the daughter of the Corinthian king, abandons Medea in favor of the young princess. Medea, a witch of substantial power, commits one of the most horrifying deeds to ever occur in any narrative ever conceived by a human: she murders her two sons — out of spite for her husband, who is now left heirless and thus powerless and forgotten in the eyes of the Greeks — along with the innocent princess. Had we stopped the tale at Jason’s height of victory, the story seemingly would have a happy ending; but as Campbell implies, this is a lie, for we know the story continues on to an ultimately harrowing conclusion. True, this might seem to be an extreme example, but it is nevertheless representative of the idea that there are no “true” happy endings — there are only stories that are cut short to seem so.
Admittedly, characters’ lives sometimes end peacefully or at least carthartically, and while not necessarily “happy,” this occurrence is usually tranquilly poignant. Ulysses, in the poem of the same name by Alfred Tennyson, is ready to accept his death “off the sea,” as the blind prophet Tiresias prophesies during Ulysses’ descent to Hades in Book XI of The Odyssey. He has lived his life, he has undergone several trials, he has reclaimed his homeland from usurping suitors, and yet he still finds himself restless in his old age:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
Ready to accept his fated death — for he is, we must remember, all too human — elderly Ulysses sets sail with his crew (“Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with” him), steering towards the unknown. And though he knows this will amount to his last journey, he is nevertheless remarkably peaceful and undefeated:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Unlike the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, who see death as the only option left in their seeming desperation, or the death of Inman in Cold Mountain, whose untimely murder leaves little resolution at the end of that narrative, Ulysses’ accepted death-to-come leaves us feeling peaceful — we accept that he will die, for he has lived a fulfilling life and will most certainly die doing what he loves. But even among this catharsis there is something uncanny, something unsettlingly familiar: human mortality. Ulysses — or Odysseus, depending on your ancient persuasion — was to the Greeks everything that an admirable man should be; and yet, even he must die. Thus, mortality is a specter that haunts all human narratives: sometimes this haunting is more explicit in certain texts than in others (e.g., in Romeo and Juliet as opposed to The Odyssey or Tennyson’s poem), but it is nevertheless there.
This uncanny feeling — this confrontation, however obvious or subtle — embodies a portion of what I term “The Great Unsettling;” for as we read great texts, we find ourselves unsettled by what we encounter. Mortality is just one form of this unsettling (though it does appear often in our literature): alienation, violence, sexuality, and even beauty unsettles us; and there are undoubtedly others that do the same. But this unsettling causes us a certain amount of pain or at least cognitive dissonance, either intellectual or emotional, which then manifests into a sort of internal demon that we must confront and vanquish; and once this adversary is defeated, we find that we have learned something about the way the world works, about the way things are. And though these lessons are more often bitter than sweet, we can at least enter old age after a lifetime of reading and studying and experiencing and living having made peace with our place in this life.
And so we encounter supposedly “depressing” and “pointless” texts and narratives like Romeo and Juliet and Cold Mountain, and we find the pain of the main characters’ deaths overwhelming. But we must grapple with this pain and come to terms with its veracity through a great deal of contemplation of whatever it is that is causing the pain or dissonance; and so doing, we come away stronger, more human, and better prepared to overcome the obstacles that life will assuredly hurl at us. Tears are only naturally shed during the Great Unsettling, but as Tolkien writes at the end of the Lord of the Rings, “not all tears are an evil.” Indeed, to deny ourselves the benefit of crying is to deny ourselves the natural cleansing of the soul. But once the flood has subsided — a task we must undertake if it doesn’t happen naturally — we are left with wisdom and, accordingly, a stronger ability to reason through our future life troubles.