I, and most people who are into literature and stories and things, really like sad stories, and I’ve never been totally sure why this is.

I, and most of the people I know, consider myself to be a generally positive, optimistic person. I like to believe in the best in people and situations, and I live my life in opposition to pointless drama. But, for some reason, I appreciate it more than anything when a story really gets me going with some profound sorrows. The same goes for the rest of the world too, I guess, since pretty much every great, timeless novel I can think of has a sad ending. Maybe not Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? No, even that’s kinda sad. See? Great literature is not a place you go to cheer yourself up.

Here’s a couple possible explanations:

1. In order to be a great writer, you need to have a pretty crappy life to make you soulful and introspective or something. Seriously. Hemingway was a crazy drunk whose kids hated him, Lewis’s wife died of cancer like two days after they got married (not really, that was hyperbole), Salinger was in, like, all of the second world war, Poe’s life was a mess from day one. These are not the sorts of people to write happy endings, but apparently they’re the sorts of people to create the canon of Western literature.


2. Everyone is actually a hopeless pessimist under their facade of sociable optimism. At least this was the case in a college class of mine in which the professor was not sold at all on the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If Professor Terkla had his way, the boy would have been eaten by a bear or something, or probably by a crazy person, in keeping with all the terrible things that happen in that book. Apparently we wouldn’t even believe a happy ending if it happened on account of the calloused shell of jaded cynicism that shrouds our hearts.

Of course those aren’t actually the reasons, but hopefully they emphasize the point that sadness is a big thing in the world’s most loved books, even though most people would say they don’t like sad endings.

I think that’s the case—as in the case that people tend to consciously want to avoid sad endings—because people tend to conflate sorrow and depression when it comes to things like this, and when you tell them “the book has a sad ending,” they’re likely to think of the depressing kind of sad over the sorrowful kind of sad. The depressing kind of sad—that is, sadness and lethargy due to nihilistic lack of meaning, or “sad for the sake of sad” in stories—is truly crappy and useless, and I’m pretty sure I can claim it is crappy and useless to the point of not even making it into any sort of professionally produced narrative media (though that might just be my optimism talking). Sorrowfully sad stories—that is, sadness that comes about entirely because of profound meaning, aka all the reasons most people feel sad at any time—can tend to look like depressing ones if you haven’t gained the experience necessary to interpret it or if you aren’t willing to think about it any more than superficially. This is a shame, because I’m pretty sure every story that ever had a sad ending was at least trying to be that kind of sad. They deserve a chance to make people the right kind of sad.

For an obvious example of this kind of sad, I’ll just go straight to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars—it’s a book about teenagers with cancer, after all, so it is all the sad all the time. Now, I don’t think Green is the best writer ever, and the first half of the book showcases that with all the characters who talk like Green wishes people would talk rather than being like real people. But he nails it with almost everything in the last half, which, as long as I’m still making confessions, I will also admit made me cry. Once.. Please note that I rarely ever cry at books or anything. I just happen to have been talking about the very few that have made me cry in these past couple posts. Really. And I really need to talk about The Fault in Our Stars for this one, so I don’t even have the choice of hiding my sobbing episodes.

At the beginning of the book, Hazel (very unsubtly) introduces the idea of nihilistic cosmic perspective: No matter what the human race does, even if it saves the planet from environmental destruction, eventually Earth will fall into the sun. And even if we escape Earth, the expansion of the universe will tear reality apart. Every single human being will be gone, and nothing will even remember that we existed. I don’t think I can blame her for being pretty obsessed with it since she’s a materialist (as in she doesn’t believe in anything spiritual, not that she likes fancy shoes and cars) with no reason to imagine an afterlife, and she has lung cancer that will probably end her life before she legally becomes an adult and has a chance to do anything worth remembering. This is more or less the depressing kind of sad that everyone naturally wants to avoid. It’s sad because nothing is worth caring about, nothing matters, and no one likes that.

But, of course, that’s not what really makes this book sad, and it’s definitely not what made me suddenly cry so hard as to physically not be able to read for half a minute. The other side of the coin is Augustus and his purposeful idealism that shrugs off Hazel’s cosmic nihilism, even if he can’t bring himself to deny it. “I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I’m in love with you,” he tells Hazel. Even when nothing matters, things matter, and that’s why they’re sad. (Just so you know, that was not the part that made me cry. You gotta do better than that.)

I realize that doesn’t explain how meaningfully sad endings, as opposed to meaningless or sad-for-the-sake-of-sad endings, are somehow more valuable than happy endings. Surely things are happy because they matter too, and you definitely don’t have to worry about hopeless nihilism creeping into your happiness. The book could end with Hazel and Augustus both getting cured by some miracle treatment and living happily ever after (I know I said I hate spoilers, but this obviously doesn’t happen), and wouldn’t we still get that wonderful moment of meaning in the face of nihilism?

That’s where, again, people are likely to misunderstand sad endings. A better word for the whole thing, I think, is bittersweet.

That fantastic episode of Doctor Who, “Blink,” wasn’t being totally pretentious with the facetious line, “Sad is happy for deep people.” Sadness, when you engage with it thoughtfully and introspectively, isn’t that far from happiness—the same things that make you happy, like family, friends, and passions, will make you sad for almost the same reasons. So, if you want to make a story that engages either happiness or sadness in the most deeply real way possible, there’s no either/or about it anymore. Hazel and Augustus are in love, and it’s both happy and sad for all sorts of reasons. It’s the bittersweetest of the bittersweet, and that’s my favorite kind of ending.