The Value of a Sad Story

It seems I have the honor of writing the first blog post for the year from the Humanities House residents. So, to keep things light I’d like to talk about why I enjoy fiction that others might find depressing.

The response I usually get from people when I tell them I like “sad stuff” is confusion, because “there is enough sadness in the world already.” Some people I talk to try to avoid gloomy stories altogether, because they try to avoid being sad in general. So, I want to share why I see value in these types of stories.

There is a vast number of examples of fiction that end on a happy note, most notably in film because many people might not think being entertained = being depressed. I can certainly see the value in happy tales, just as others can. Happy stories have the power to give you an emotional high, and make you vicariously elated for the characters you just watched succeed in their adventures. However, unhappy endings can be valuable for similar reasons.

Honestly, I think searching for happiness all your life is a fool’s quest. If all you felt was happiness, life would be dull, and the happiness would become numbing. I believe in balance, that the sadness and other negative emotions are necessary to understand happiness. I like depressing stories because they juxtapose to the happiness I feel, and help make it stronger through a form of catharsis. Not to be confused with sadism, but “sad stuff” helps to bring more positive emotions later.

Sadness in fiction can also produce a powerful effect. It can be used to illustrate a character’s woes and fully emphasize how big of a struggle the character is experiencing. It can also bring awareness to a problem to which the audience was oblivious. Bringing out the negative emotions in your audience can be a great way to sway them to your side against something you believe should be stopped. (Note: this is done in politics a lot, sometimes for more nefarious purposes. Ex: the recent vote on Question 1 in Springfield.) Embracing sadness in fiction and elsewhere can also help you be more empathetic to others, as you understand how the characters feel when they experience tribulations. Sad stories can be more realistic sometimes, because it would not always make sense to end with a happy tone when it does not fit the context of the rest of the story.

I’d like to use a book and its movie counterpart to illustrate why I prefer the sadder ending. The well known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck is a tale about the struggles of an Oklahoman family being forced off their farm during the Great Depression. Crops were dying because of the dust bowl, so people had to take out loans to be able to keep their farm. Then, they couldn’t pay back the loans, so the banks took their land. We witness the Joad family experience oppression from people they meet on their way to California to find work. People often call them “Okies,” a derogatory term referring to people that moved out west to find work after being forced off their land. People think they’re thieves because they are poor and looking for food. Cops beat them and throw them in jail for no reason. Many of them are starving, sometimes to death. They don’t have enough money to feed their children, so they have a good chance of dying from malnutrition. When they do find work, the wages are so low that they still can’t feed their families, so every member of the family has to participate in the work, including the children. It was a horrifying world to which the Joads were exposed.

Steinbeck also breaks up the narrative with intercalary chapters, which don’t focus on the Joads but talk about the people of this time and region in a more general way, and show they all had hardships. Steinbeck does this to make the reader understand that this was not just a singular experience, that the Joad family was not a special family in this difficult time. The horror was widespread, and there was a great abundance of people who experienced these struggles.

The ending of this book is extremely important, because it emphasizes the true nature of what the Joads and other people who lived during the Great Depression faced. When I read the book for the first time, I read with fervor, hoping the Joads’ luck would turn around. I thought surely they deserved better, but up until the very end of the novel their luck never changed. I won’t spoil the last scene, but the book ends with the Joads huddled together during a storm, not knowing what to do for their next meal or paycheck. The sad ending of the novel emphasizes how horrible these conditions were. If the book ended with a happy tone, it would negate and trivialize their hardships.

But, the movie did exactly that. I do think the film version of The Grapes of Wrath is a fine film, not nearly as great as the novel, but not too bad either. However, it ended with a speech from Ma Joad that emphasized how strong they all are and they would get through anything no matter what. Then, they drove off into the sunset. While that was a nice sentiment and left the audience with smiles on their faces, it was not as powerful as the book’s ending. The original raw and depressing ending was necessary to understand the hardships these people faced. The movie also did not, and probably could not, include the intercalary chapters that made the book so great. That took away from the feeling that this problem was more widespread than just affecting a small group of people.

The sadder ending is preferable here because it helps us empathize with the characters more. When we see them at their lowest point, we are able to understand how profoundly difficult their lives have been. It is a beautifully sad story, and ending with a happy speech does not do it justice. The speech was pulled from the book, but in an earlier part, so you still get the sense of hope that the family shares. However, in reality we can never really know if the Joad’s overcame their difficulties or not, and that is emphasized more with the ending of the novel.

So, sad fiction can be valuable for many reasons. They can bring awareness to a particular issue, help you empathize with the characters by understanding how great their struggles are, and they can also help you release your negative emotions and make the happiness you feel another time stronger. That is why I tend to connect more with unhappy endings. There is more power in a sad story.