When Bad Things Happen to Good People, In Books

First a confession . . .I got the idea for this post while watching a movie—a movie I’ve seen before that always makes me cry.  As I swallowed hard, trying to fight back tears during the climactic scene I found myself wondering, why do I put this film in the DVD player when I know the response it is going to evoke?  Why do I take a perfectly good Sunday afternoon and willingly lower my own spirits?

A similar question can be asked about books.  The first time we read a novel we don’t know that it is going to end uncomfortably.  But the next time we most certainly do.  So, why do we re-read such stories?  When I was sixteen I thought that Ivanhoe would end up with Rebecca (totally unrealistic—I know).  Decades later I know with certainty he will not.  Yet I take Sir Walter Scott’s novel off my shelf again and again. What value is there to be found in reading an “unhappily ever after” tale?

1)  Books where everything doesn’t end well for everyone make us think.  When life is smooth sailing we tend to “go with it.”  Nothing wrong with that!  There isn’t much call for pondering our fate or closely examining our own actions when everything is moving along smoothly.  And the same is true in reading.  I tend to race through happy books, enjoying every minute, but not exactly mulling over the deeper stuff of life.  That’s not to say I never think about ethical issues when reading a book that ends—who hasn’t considered the role of duty and honesty in life when confronted with the juxtaposition of Mr. Knightly and Mr. Frank Churchill?  But nothing makes me confront the BIG issues like a book that ends badly.  Want to tackle human evil, racism, illness, the death of a child, inequality before the law, loneliness, colonialism, religious intolerance?  A novel can make you do that, but only if you read novels that put their characters through the ringer.  These are the books where bad things happen to good people, but I would argue positive good comes out of reading and discussing them (even heatedly).

2)  Books that don’t resolve neatly for characters we think of as “deserving” set realistic expectations for real life.  Life is full of difficult stuff (see the list of issues in the last paragraph and that doesn’t scratch the surface).  Stories that sanitize human existence don’t do us any favors.  Look at what believing that her life would be like a romantic novel did for Emma Bovary.  Seriously. Readingfor escapism has its place, but if it is all we do then it is easy to start believing the hype.  And when we hit obstacles in our lives that don’t resolve with hard work or a convenient plot twist we can start to feel aggrieved, even though common sense and experience tell us that life is not fair.  I call this the “where’s my happy ending” syndrome.  The occasional book where the good are not rewarded and/or the bad are not punished goes a long way towards restoring our balanced view of our own lot.  The Disney version of “A Little Mermaid” may have tunes I can hum but the original story resonates with me on a deeper level.

So bring on the tear-jerkers, the novels that make me grind my teeth in frustration, and the books that make me hope against reason that next time I read them they will end differently.  I am ready to feel the horror as Anna Karenina realizes too late that she wants to live.  I am ready to shed an angry tear with Jem when he learns Tom Robinson has been convicted.  I am ready to be tied up in knots again by Richard Wright’s Native SonI will continue to read and re-read books where bad things happen to good characters because they make me attend to matters of my own character in a way that nothing else can.


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