Closing a novel after reading through its six hundred pages; there is a sense of frustration. There was no happy ending: the good guys survived, the bad guys were unbowed; and the ordinary people lost out. What did it matter though? What difference would it make if all those on the good side in a novel died at the end? Reading Alastair MacLean’s ‘HMS Ulysses’ as a thirteen year old, there was a struggle at the end to work out if any of the novel’s central characters had survived the sinking and a sense of relief that one officer had been transferred to another ship; but what did it matter?
There is a scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ where the Players visiting Elsinore are asked to perform lines from a Greek tragedy; the performance has a profound effect upon Hamlet:
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
What did it matter to a seventeenth century actor that tragic events had befallen a Greek city? Nothing, yet the lines are acted as though every moment was in personal experience, that everything described was being felt at first hand by the actor himself.
Sometimes the fictional evokes more response than the factual; a novel can bring a spectrum of emotions, yet walking through the genocide memorial museum in Kigali, Rwanda last May, there was an overwhelming sense of numbness. Perhaps realities are just too overwhelming; illness, sudden death, accidents, pain, grief, bereavement; inexplicable tragedies. Perhaps stories, plays, fiction are a way of coping with daily grimness; providing a safety valve through which emotions may be released. Hamlet protests at such a situation; he allows his emotions free rein and piles tragedy upon tragedy. Quiet reflection upon unsatisfactory endings provides a safer world than one where we did as we thought.