Discussion Question: Good Sadness and Bad Sadness


In a conversation about sad stories over at my blog a couple of years ago, S.D. Smith made a great point. To quote the man himself:

“Maybe JR, there’s something in the discussion of what kind of sad is helpful and what kind of despair is basically hurtful. There’s a difference between digging through the septic tank to recover the wedding band and just going for a swim in the thing.”

Leave it to S.D. There’s potty humor, and then there’s S.D. Smith potty humor. But, as I said, the man makes a good point. What are the proper purposes of sadness in song and story? Allow me to answer in three principles, followed by two ways of getting sadness wrong.

Principle #1: A good sad story clarifies what is important to us. We love better when we ponder what it would mean to lose the thing we love. Which is what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is about:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I love that last line—“To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Autumn, in many ways, is sadder than winter. The leaves’ last burst of beauty before they die and fall is more affecting than the cold and barrenness that follow after they’re gone. The best sad stories and songs do something to our souls that is comparable to what the autumn leaves do. Beauty and loss commingle—the beauty sharpened by the loss, the loss sharpened by the beauty.

Principle #2: A good sad story strengthens our empathy muscles. A good sad story makes us better at feeling for people who hurt, and that’s a good thing.

Principle #3: A sad story well-told convinces the reader that sadness doesn’t have the final say. A good sad story makes me realize that sadness is a thing to be gone through and not stepped around—because it does good work in our souls. I’m not especially interested in fiction in which sadness or hurt don’t do any particular work in people’s souls—either the characters’ or mine.

There are plenty of sad stories that don’t pass these tests. On the one hand there are sentimental stories. I ran across a great definition of sentimentality recently. Sentimentality invites us to enjoy another person’s pain rather than entering into it. Sentimental stories violate Principle #1 by cheapening the things we value rather than making them more dear. Sentimental stories violate Principle #2 by distancing us from hurt or, alternately, giving us a substitute for hurt that has no nutritional value.

In an earlier post I mentioned how much I love the old George Jones song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It makes me want to cry every time I hear it (and I’ve heard it a lot).

“We found some letters by his bed/ Dated nineteen-sixty two,/ And he had underlined in red/ Every single ‘I love you.’”

I defy anyone to show me a more perfectly delicious sadness in song or story. But it occurs to me that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” doesn’t pass the test I’m proposing here. It is time I acknowledge that I love that song because it’s the best sentimental song in the American songbook.

If sentimentality is one end of the bad sadness spectrum, the other end is meaningless hurt and sadness. Here I’m going to criticize a couple of books that a lot of Rabbit Room readers love. I am not, of course, criticizing said readers. I invite any and all to come to the defense of The Road and The Giving Tree.

The Road is a brutal example of a story in which suffering and sadness seem to point toward no greater good. The only way I can tolerate The Road (which, by the way, has a lot of beautiful writing and and a lot of writing that’s just the right kind of ugly for the subject matter) is to view it as a thought experiment: “Let’s pretend the universe is meaningless, and see where that idea gets us.” Where it gets me is high-tailing it back to the Gospel. So it at least did that much for me. I know people who see hope in The Road (and I think this is truer for the movie—which I haven’t seen—than for the book).But as I said in a comment once, any hope a person sees in this book is hope that he brought there himself. He didn’t find it there. I realize that I may have overstated my case. Again, I welcome all efforts to convince me otherwise, because I think pretty highly of Cormac McCarthy and would like to like The Road better than I do.

If The Road offers the brutal version of meaningless sadness, there’s a kinder, gentler version of meaningless sadness, and it’s brought to us by The Giving Tree. I re-read this story recently, and I remembered why I dislike this book so much. The sadness and the sufferings of that most generous tree don’t amount to anything. The tree gives, but she gives only to indulge (and only temporarily) the whims of the boy who never benefits or grows as the result of her sacrifice. She cannot give him what he needs, and what she can give turns out to be limited. The Giving Tree might try a little tough love. What looks like sacrifice is really just co-dependence (forgive the pop-psychology word, but it’s the only one that fits). The Giving Tree is, in essence, an unfunny martyr-mother joke. You half expect it to end in a scene like the one depicted here. Father Thomas McKenzie, for one, disagrees with me on this point, believing that The Giving Tree offers a reasonably good picture of Jesus’s sacrifice for ungrateful people like you and me.

There, that ought to give everybody something to talk about. Somebody, please convince me that I’ve got The Giving Tree all wrong. People love this book, and when possible, I prefer not to be the contrarian.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


  1. Heather Rose

    2 Corinthians 7:8-11 (NCV)

    “Even if my letter made you sad, I am not sorry I wrote it. At first I was sorry, because it made you sad, but you were sad only for a short time. 9 Now I am happy, not because you were made sad, but because your sorrow made you change your lives. You became sad in the way God wanted you to, so you were not hurt by us in any way. 10 The kind of sorrow God wants makes people change their hearts and lives. This leads to salvation, and you cannot be sorry for that. But the kind of sorrow the world has brings death. 11 See what this sorrow—the sorrow God wanted you to have—has done to you: It has made you very serious. It made you want to restore yourselves. It made you angry and afraid. It made you want to see me. It made you care. It made you want to do the right thing. In every way you have regained your innocence.”

  2. Matthew

    I like your principles. I have not read either book you reference. I saw the movie “No Country For Old Men” and it turned me off from reading it and “The Road.” The former, while done well as a movie, left me with nothing, feeling nothing, hopeing nothing. It struck me the other day that we must have conflict in our stories; we must have a darker side. It puts things in perspective, yet the point isn’t the darkness, but how the subject reacts to it. Sometimes a negative reaction can show you the wrong way, but it there is no point to it, then it comes back feeling empty.

    I’m going to remember your principles, because so much I am pulled to the dark, but I want to see the light in it. I just finished Aralia’s Colors and it does a wonderful job of showing all these principles, showing hope even when you couldn’t imagine any (sometimes simply from the undeserved love shown).

  3. Dan Kulp

    I like “The Road” and can’t stand “The Giving Tree”. I think “The Road” speaks of perseverence and hope. It’s a world uglier than mine currently, but there is hope worth fighting for. Somewhere in my list of “to-reads” is Solzhenitsyn. I’m guessing he can tell firsthand of hope that goes to the point of breaking, and does not break (tip of the hat to GKC).

    I think “The Giving Tree” does speak of the relentless giving but it begins and ends with entitlement. It’s the rich young ruler who went away saddened. I don’t mind a story to leave you scratching for an end (as manay parables did). But “The Giving Tree” seems to scratch at what more could the tree have done or what else should the tree have done. Maybe it can point to tough love, but I see it pointing to “keep giving and die” or “get used and you might be mildly useful in the end”.

  4. EmmaJ

    Yes! Quite so. I appreciate what you’ve said about the defining features of meaningful and meaningless sadness in literature. So true about _The Giving Tree_. I knew there was something that didn’t sit well with me and I think this is it – I wanted the tree’s giving to result in something more productive than it did, and for the boy to get more benefit from the tree’s sacrifices than just the bare material elements.

    Two opposite-end-of-the spectrum examples that come to my mind are Beth’s deathbed scene in _Little Women_ vs. that Christmas shoes song from a few years back (apologies to those of you who love that song – I mean you no disrespect). Maybe one additional defining feature is how true to life the portrayal of sadness is. There’s nothing less sad about losing a mom than losing a sister, but one of these examples makes me weep and reminds me that I cherish my family… and the other makes me think, “What the heck? Just go home, kid. Your mama don’t need no shoes.”

  5. James Witmer

    This is great, Jonathan. I think these principles are well-conceived and well said.

    Is it fair to say that disagreement usually rises over the application of principle number three? It looks that way in your two examples, and I think you and I would disagree on how well some of Flannery O’Conner’s stories pass this test.

    I love the seeming clarity of your diagnosis:

    …Any hope a person sees in this book is hope that he brought there himself. He didn’t find it there.

    But I wonder how clearly we can tell the difference for ourselves, and how much subjectivity is introduced by the (I believe, true) principle that “A sad story well-told convinces the reader that sadness doesn’t have the final say.”

    Are some of us more easily convinced by some kinds of stories?

    I haven’t read The Road, but I have read The Giving Tree a number of times, and I still can’t decide for whether it’s a good picture of Christian love or mere sentiment.

  6. Jenny Stockton

    I started my first ever creative writing class a few weeks ago and have to turn in a short story next Wednesday. The difference between good sadness and bad sadness has been the exact place I’ve found myself stuck with every attempt to start and make progress on a draft. I don’t want to be preachy, but the hope that motivates me to write in the first place is not something I seem able to set aside. Also, I’ve always thought that I loved The Giving Tree, but I think I’ve always wished the tree would give the boy “a little tough love”, too. Thanks for that clarification.

  7. Pete Peterson


    I’ve noticed an interesting thing since marrying Jennifer. We are each drawn toward very different subject matter in books and movies. I really enjoy a film or a book like The Road that takes me through dark territory, and I often love those kind of works the most when the light at the end is the smallest. Magnolia is a great example. It’s dark and painful but it’s all worth it for me when when at the end I get the bare beginnings of a smile. I also loved No Country for Old Men, and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of the darkest books I’ve ever read—and also one of my favorite.

    Jennifer, on the other hand, leans toward the opposite end of the spectrum. She prefers colorful, optimistic films and books, and often the things I love really disturb her.

    Here’s the thing though, we’ve noticed that our preferences in stories tend to pull against our actual personalities. I’m pretty happy-go-lucky most of the time. I’m optimistic. I don’t worry too much about the world or about consequences. I assume that everything is going to be all right in the end. Jennifer is more worrisome, more cautious. She often needs to be reminded that things aren’t as bad as she fears.

    It seems to me that we each seek stories that give us what we need spiritually and emotionally. I need to be reminded that things are NOT okay. I need to be reminded that ugly, terrible, awful things happy everyday, and I need to remember that I’m called to stand against those things. Dark, troublesome movies like The Road do that for me. Jennifer on the other hand needs reminders of the opposite—that life is full of joy and humor and beauty and innocence—and the stories she loves are reminders to her of those things.

    So I’m not entirely convinced by the good sadness vs. bad sadness argument. One man’s septic tank is another man’s Rocky Mountain stream.

  8. Loren Warnemuende

    I must say, despite the topic of this post it made me rather happy to read it. Finally! Others who don’t like The Giving Tree! That one has always bugged me and I couldn’t quite verbalize why. Thanks for putting it into words, Jonathan.

    And Pete, I think I’m with Jennifer on reading/watching preferences, though I’m not sure if it’s because of my personality. I’ve often pondered why I like what I like and haven’t reached a definite reason. I think it’s partly ’cause I feel like there’s enough grief in the world without trying to get my emotions worked up reading about it.

  9. Dawn

    Well, despite my attempts to hate “Giving Tree” (I have heard this from other friends about the “pathetic love” vs. “real love”) I have to confess I have loved this book from the first time I read it until now.

    A few years ago I got to hear Makoto Fujimura (a great artist and Christian thinker) speak on the Elder Brother in the Prodigal Son. He shared how WE (as the Body of Christ) are the Elder Brother. We look at the Younger Brother who squanders and basically tells his Dad, “wish you were dead!” and we say, “WHAT??? you threw a party for that???”

    I realize in “The Giving Tree” that the boy never has a moment of looking at the pig food and realizing himself…but what if he does? What if Silverstein ended it like that on purpose so that we didn’t know if the boy ever realized real love was there all along? What if we were given the opportunity to (as the witness to what happened just like the Elder Brother) to say, “Let me love like that too.” Instead of thinking love is something to be deserved.

    The Giving Tree shows me grace. Lavish grace. Philip Yancey says in his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as “those evil people” or “those poor people who need our help.” Nor must we search for signs of “loveworthiness.” Grace teaches us that
    God loves because of WHO God is not because of who we are.”

    Surely, we must warn against pathetic love (like in the video…almost spewed my coffee that was so funny!). I have a sign up in my studio that says, “Create from love. For Him. For others.” If I love wanting to GET or change or even make a good point then I have nothing (I Cor 13 right?). Love knows itself…it’s rooted, like the tree in something greater…someone greater.

    And mostly I just love trees.

  10. Jennifer Trafton

    Yes, I agree with Pete about The Giving Tree. I understand the criticisms of it, but here’s the tough thing: It’s true. It’s painfully, tragically true. It’s true of God’s creation and how it has offered itself to our wasteful hands and suffered and yet still offers. It’s true of many parents. It’s true of a great deal of love in our world. We want the book to be different at the end, we want the tree to be vindicated somehow, because our hearts demand fairness and justice and can’t bear the fact that in a broken world love is poured out into those broken places and broken people over and over and may never get any more reward (in this life) that the knowledge that it has filled a deep need, even if never acknowledged. And that is a fact of life. So my question would be, how do children respond to this book? What do they take from it? I have never read it to a child, so I don’t know. My guess is that they first identify with the child in the book – the one playing in the tree, the one needing and enjoying it. And then as the book continues they begin to sympathize not with the child but with the tree itself. (Is this shifting of perspective not part of the gift of the book?) And that they will get, at the deepest level, the sadness of the situation, ask why the boy doesn’t say thank you. Isn’t that instinctive response of “The world shouldn’t be this way” valuable in its own way, a prompting of something in the reader to change?

  11. Eowyn

    It’s funny – because I was just talking to a friend about the difference between sentimentality – self-serving sadness – and sorrow – which has a sort of purity to it. I have a bad tendency to sentimentality in the form of drama – the sort of emotional surge you get from those things, despite no real artistic merit.

    I even sometimes pollute good works by watching them that way. But I can always tell the difference. There’s such a thing as pure sorrow. For me: A Tale of Two Cities and Les Mis (let’s face it – mostly Anne Hathaway) always inspire that sort of grief.

    @Pete – that’s a neat way of looking at it. Like Jennifer, I often need a reminder that there’s some good in the world.

  12. Loren Warnemuende

    Jennifer, that’s a good question regarding how children respond to The Giving Tree. I’ve avoided reading it to my kids because I dislike it so much…. Maybe I should take the chance for good discussion.

    Dawn, I love your perspective on it (even though I still don’t like the book 🙂 )

  13. Eowyn

    I also felt rather “I ought to be sad but this is so meaningless” at the end of Harry Potter 5 and 6 (I have now read and loved the series, much to my surprise, and thanks to AP). 6, of course, was improved by certain elements of 7 which I shall not mention for fear of spoilers. But 5 still rings rather empty. (I think this may be because Rowling intended to kill a different character but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it.)

  14. Mark Geil

    Great discussion. Made extra great because EMMAJ mentioned the Christmas Shoes and made me laugh while reading about sadness. “Sir, I wanna buy these shoes….”

    We had an Eric Peters house show, and he was kind enough to play all my requests, and then we both realized all my requests were sad songs. Hmmm.

    I like Pete’s theory, and my wife Amy is the same as Jennifer, drawn to the happier stuff while I get myself wrecked by EP songs and Dun Cow/Sorrows and Les Mis. But while I would say I’m happy-go-lucky and optimistic, I wouldn’t say that Amy’s the opposite. She’s generally pretty chipper. So I wonder – and I might offend here – if gender has anything to do with it? Could it be that men need to wallow every now and then and women are content not to? I have no idea why that might be the case, so my argument is purely anecdotal and particularly weak.

  15. Hannah

    Love it when someone writes on the same thing I have thought about! (though I haven’t read either of those books) Thank you! =)
    I’ve always loved sad stories, and also always made this same distinction. The stories I love are those that make one appreciate what is good and true and beautiful all the more because it was lost (eg The Yearling) or almost (LOTR). And here’s another testimony to the truth of what Pete said: I do tend to be the optimistic, hopeful one. Interesting to think about.

  16. April Pickle

    I like the three principles, and feel especially acquainted with #1 and #3. Not because I’m a writer of good stories, but because I live in them.

    Fall IS sad. Not long ago, my stepfather was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Shakespeare’s words ring true as my family is getting acquainted with what it means to “love that well.” It is a sad and precious season we’re in, a commingling of loss and beauty, as you say. It has been such a blessing to us to receive clarification of what is really important. God bless the storytellers who bring such clarification well.

    And #3 (the part about sentimentality). I was in a prison of sentimentality until last year’s Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club grabbed me and pulled me out. I had used this prison as a place to hide from my fears, to hide from reality. And it left me wanting. During the reading club, JR mentioned the art of Thomas Kincade. I had never been a fan of that “art,” but I couldn’t explain why. JR explained that Kincade’s paintings depict a world that doesn’t need Jesus. A-ha! I think of that often, and think it applies to sentimentality. If it weren’t for grace, I think we’d all constantly be working to create a world that doesn’t need Jesus.

    And by the way, I’d love it if someone took a Kincade painting, and opened the doors and windows to all of those perfect looking churches and houses to reveal all of the evil going on inside of them. I’ve had it with sentimentality. Sentimentality is a liar.

  17. Bailey

    Okay, I loved this discussion question. Now my question. Is this piece of poetry sentimental or sorrowful? It was birthed this summer out of intense pain, but I’m curious of your thoughts.


    I. Playground

    Rototilled box
    splashed in upturned salamanders and mystique;
    clean pewter shovel, unscratched rakes;
    pliable sand;
    soft impressions
    step onto this forested playground
    in wide-eyed hazel wonder.

    II. Cemetery

    Chiseled stone
    paves the pine-needled floor in a chill—
    silent, still, long.
    Dried amber leaves scuttle by on breezes
    like ripped paper messages.
    Relentless, winter descends;
    snows on chip-sealed hearts
    in memoriam.

    III. Garden

    Drenched soil
    black from rainy mildew
    squints at fresh light;
    wet mulch shrouded in web
    slowly dries under the sharp sun;
    pastel hues of rose,
    green, golden strands
    burn color into dormant ground.
    Sweet scents waft up from defrosted clouds—
    the leftover dewdrops;
    scents of
    cocoa-fertilizer, basil,
    and peppermint.

  18. Maddy

    I was drawn to the darkside much more before having kids. Now, like Jennifer, I need to view the world with more rosey-colored glasses.
    I trudged through The Road while I was pregnant and it nearly destroyed me.
    I respect McCarthy’s writing, but I don’t trust his heart. His vision is black and violent (with ‘no room’ for any developed female characters). I agree with Jonathan Rogers. The hope I found was not due to the novel itself. I put myself on the hellish journey of The Road and by some act of grace managed to survive. So, it was an experience that I needed during a transitional phase of my life. But I don’t seek out that experience regularly.
    As for The Giving Tree, I can’t see it as a Christ/sacrifice metaphor. Because the gender of the tree is so stereotypically female, I can only view her as a mother figure who insanely encourages and enjoys the dysfunction and abuse of the boy/man in her life. It’s hard for me to see beyond the sadomasochistic dismemberment of a woman. I usually really dig Shell Silverstein though.

  19. A Reader

    Having read this sometime earlier, this month I came across “the Giving Tree” in my books, and proceeded to try to describe to a family member why it was a depressing book and why I didn’t like it. They only said, “And the Tree was Happy” we are most happy when giving to others.” It gave me something to think about.

  20. TM

    I actually did see quite a bit of hope in The Road. I think McCarthy may see little hope himself, but he recognizes hope in others, and may not understand it. I think he is exploring that in the novel. That’s exactly what makes it so fascinating to me.

    The father in the story is running, afraid, and is simply trying to survive. The plan he has for himself and his son, to reach the coast, is uncertain and inadequate. The Boy understands they’re being followed (pursued) and wants desperately to connect with their pursuers, though he cannot be sure they are safe. He trusts and hopes. In the end, the family that finds the Boy is Good. The Father and Boy were pursued by Good through the entire book.

    In spite of McCarthy, hope explodes from this story. Even when all is seemingly destroyed, “the breath of God was in his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time”.

    All that is required then is Kingdom restoration, which is where McCarthy (I believe) is stymied. He can’t conceive that God is capable of restoring such desolation. I suppose this is where I bring my own hope to the story.

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful post.

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