At Story's End
How the stories we love most connect with the greater one we’re living in
By Jamie A. Hughes
Picture a woman walking alone for days across a lonely English moor with darkness closing in all around her. Homeless and destitute, she wanders in search of food and a place to begin her life over again, but she is constantly rejected by the people she meets.
One night, as she stumbles weak and exhausted through a pounding rainstorm, she notices a small flame burning in the distance. Coming closer, she sees it is a candle glowing in the window of a small cottage, and she collapses on the doorstep, content to be let in or die where she has fallen. Thankfully, the owners, moved by her pitiful appearance, bring her inside and begin the long process of nursing her back to health.
Each time I read this chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, I put myself in Jane’s place and try to imagine the bone-chilling winds and the fear she feels as she walks, utterly alone in the world. I’ve never known hunger like she describes—a gnawing, desperate pain that makes her beg for a spoonful of cold porridge—but I can feel it when my eyes reach that sad portion of the page. It speaks to something within me because I, too, have spent time in darkness, though of a more spiritual sort, searching for relief with outstretched hands.
However, this heartrending journey isn’t unique to her story. Countless other characters in movies, novels, and plays have embarked on similar odysseys, and most experience the same blissful conclusion. In fact, in our stories, lost characters are often found, and though we know their “happily ever afters” are certain, they never fail to enthrall us. But why? Why can we experience the same story a thousand different ways and never get tired of it?
Perhaps it’s because the story line appeals to a deep-seated need we all share: a desire to be rescued from a world we know is deeply flawed. We may have everything society says we need in order to be content—security, love, belonging, purpose—but there are still times when we ache for something beyond all that, something elusive and ineffable that dances just beyond our grasp.
And when we experience it vicariously through a story, the rightness of it resonates within us like a rich chord rising from the belly of a guitar. That’s the reason why we reproduce this moment in our tales: we want to experience a sliver of the perfection lost when humankind turned from God toward itself—from a paradise we will never experience or possess again this side of heaven.
Yet we should remember that the Lord did not create our great need for Him without also providing the means for easing the ache it causes. When we retell stories in any medium, we are making use of a gift from our merciful heavenly Father.
As C. S. Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, “Even our poets and musicians and inventors never, in the ultimate sense, make. We only build. We always have materials to build from.” God is both the reason we continually build the narratives that sustain us, and the supplier of the raw goods we use to construct them.
We love stories like Jane’s because at their core is an archetype our hearts are designed to respond to. Jesus put it this way when talking to His disciples: “What woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’” (Luke 15:8-9). We intrinsically understand this parable and know that we are the lost currency so desperately sought. God, the One who provides the freedom and all-encompassing love we crave, wrote the story for each of us.
And through it, He provides the assurance that reclamation is more than possible. This reunion is something that will be celebrated for all eternity as we dwell with Him—beloved, secure, and forever found.
Our retellings of this radiant moment are bland imitations by comparison, pale as weak tea. They provide a momentary loosening of the chains the world uses to bind us, which always draw taut again. And when they do, they are more painful, not because they’ve changed somehow, but because we have temporarily experienced the delight of living without them in that “better country . . . a heavenly one” that has been prepared for us (Heb. 11:16). James tells believers, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8), and that is precisely what good stories help us do.
Knowing this should not only impact the way we view the stories we love but also change how we share them with others. The next time a film or a book touches you in a way that seems inexpressible, study that feeling. Turn it over in your hands like a piece of polished glass. View it from all sides, and search for the meaning a cursory examination might miss.
When you do, you’ll discover that your reaction is caused by something God lovingly planted within you—a taproot to which everything is connected and that cannot be removed. It is a piece of the divine, something we all possess, and it allows both a true disciple and an ardent atheist to experience and recognize goodness the same way. If we, as believers, can harness this universal perception and use it to explain why certain stories move us, it won’t be long until those people who don’t know the Storyteller start seeking Him as well.
Some people would have us believe the world and its cruelty is all there is. If that’s true, why does Jane’s story not end on that doorstep? We can’t let it. In fact, we reject such a grim conclusion outright because we are the handiwork of the God who brings good news to the afflicted, provides healing for the brokenhearted, liberates the captives, and frees the prisoners (see Isa. 61:1). We were crafted with an innate need for restoration. Everything in us yearns to fellowship with the One “[in] whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17), and it is God alone who can satisfy our souls.
The candlelight He provides is not some mirage or other-worldly trick; it is the shining, constant beam that guides us home to Him. And when we find it at last, we’ll experience the “glow of grateful joy” that Jane feels when she crosses the threshold. Like her, each of us will say, “I feel no longer outcast, vagrant, and disowned by the wide world.”