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Happy Endings – Margaret Atwood Essay

‘Happy Endings’ is one of Margaret Atwood’s most frequently-anthologized stories because it is so unusual. In form, it isn’t so much a story as an instruction manual on how to write one. In content, it is a powerful observation on life. The story is broken up into six possible life scenarios plus some concluding remarks. In scenario A, John meets Mary and they have a perfect life, living together devotedly until they die. In scenario B, John sleeps with Mary, whom he doesn’t love; he treats her abysmally, she commits suicide, and he marries Madge, whom he does love, and ‘everything continues as in A.’ In scenario C, Mary sleeps with John, who is married to Madge, who has become boring. Mary only sleeps with John because she pities him, and she is really in love with James, who rides a motorcycle. John discovers Mary and James in bed together and shoots them before turning the gun on himself. Madge goes on to marry a nice man named Fred, and we continue as in A. In scenario D, Fred and Madge have no interpersonal problems at all, but their house is swept away by a tidal wave.

They emerge ‘wet and dripping and grateful, and continue as in A.’ In scenario E, Fred is found to have heart problems. Madge nurses him until he dies, after which she selflessly devotes herself to volunteer work for the rest of her life. It is in this scenario, incidentally, that Atwood begins to break down this encapsulated version of ‘fifty ways to write a story.’ Maybe it’s not Fred with the heart problems, she suggests; maybe it’s Madge who has cancer. Maybe she’s not kind and understanding; maybe she’s guilty and confused. Or maybe Fred is. Maybe Fred, after Madge’s death, devotes himself to bird watching rather than volunteer work. We are obviously getting the point that none of this really matters.

In scenario F, Atwood hammers this point home. ‘If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you. . . . You’ll still end up with A.’ What is the common denominator between all these scenarios? In case you missed it, Atwood sums it up in her concluding remarks. ‘John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.’ As in ‘The Age of Lead,’ ‘Happy Endings’ forces us to question the point of life. Every story, carried to its ultimate logical conclusion, has the same ending, because all lives have the same ending. We may die in the heat of battle; we may die in our sleep. We may die in infancy, in a gang war, in a nursing home. But we’re going to die. The story isn’t in the ending — it’s in what we do on the way there.

Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”

So you may have found that this week’s reading left you with quite a few questions, such as, “What did I just read?” Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is not a typical short story. In fact, we could even raise the question of whether it actually is a short story or not. “Happy Endings” is an example of metafiction. You may want to think of metafiction this way: it is a writer writing about writing. To clarify, in metafiction, an author writes a story in order make the reader think about the nature of a story. With metafiction, the author becomes self-reflective about the act of writing. Did you notice those moments in “Happy Endings” when Atwood comments on the story she is writing? (For example, in plot C, the voice of the author mentions, “…this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later” [767].) Atwood’s goal is for the reader to contemplate what is the essence of a story. “If you want a happy ending, try A.”

“Happy Endings” primarily consists of 6 different bare-bone plots stemming from the very basic catalyst: “John and Mary meet.” Plot A – the one recommended it we want a “happy ending” – presents the ideal married life of Mary and John: they enjoy well-paying, fulfilling careers;the value of their house skyrockets, their children “turn out well;” they go one vacation;and even get to retire. (Heck, their sex-life together doesn’t even fade!) Atwood offers Plot A as the stereotypical, cliched “happy ending.” The problem with Plot A, at least as far as storytelling goes, there’s no drama. Here the couple does not face any conflict, crisis, or tension. Without crisis, there’s no character development. John and Mary become merely empty names; there’s no reason to care for them. While a “happy ending,” Plot A falls completely flat. (Plot A reminds me of a quotation from Leo Tolstoy: “All families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) Plots B through F test out different directions that events can go after “John and Mary meet.” Each of these plots are remarkably predictable, mainly since they are based on cliched, stock characters.

Plot B places Mary in the role of the unrequited lover, just hoping that John, the insensitive male, will come to see how much she truly cares for him. (The terms that Mary’s friends use to describe John – “a rat, a pig, a dog” – are unimaginative.) In Plot C, John takes on the part of the insecure, middle-aged man seeking assurance from a much younger woman, Mary. Plot D is the well recognizable disaster story, like last year’s film “The Impossible”. If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook,” you are already familiar with Plot E. Finally, Plot F resembles that of the story of lovers caught up in the political turmoils of their time. However, whatever the plot maybe, we always end with Plot A. The names of the characters may change and “in between you may get a lustful, brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times, sort of” but the ending to the story will always be the same (767). Is this because, according to Atwood, readers will only accept this idealized ending for tales of romance? Could Atwood be commenting on readers’ expectations for how the story will end when two lovers meet?

Moreover, is Atwood claiming there is something false about Plot A? Atwood emphatically states near the end of “Happy Endings” is that “the only authentic ending” is: “John and May die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” Adopting a bleak outlook, Atwood argues that the one ending that we all will share in and so rings true is death. Now rather than leave us on that depressing note, Atwood offers a bit of hope, “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun” (676). If you consider this statement, Atwood is right. Generally, romantic tales don’t open with the couple being married, with a home and children. Instead, the story of a couple centers on how they get together – what are the obstacles, the emotional turmoil, they face to reach their Plot A? From William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Nicholas Sparks, marriage is a conclusion not a beginning. The drama lies in everything the lovers have to do to reach that point. “Now try How and Why”

In the final three paragraphs, Atwood identifies where the essence of a story lies. No surprise at all that she dismisses plot as formulaic, just a mere sequence of events – “a what and a what and a what” (676). Looking back on over Plots A through F, that is all she gives us. John and Mary’s characters are left undeveloped; again, we could interchange their names with those of Madge and Fred, while leaving the plot the same. We don’t care about John and Mary because we don’t have the chance to get to know them. Also, at the end of each plot Atwood leaves us with the question of what is the point of the story.

There’s an emptiness felt after reading each plot. Why tell us the story? Generally, we, as readers, look for authors through their writings to give us some insight into our world. Stories have themes, morals, profound messages that go beyond just the bones of the plot. Consider some of the short stories that we have read so far this term. Is it just that Chopin gives us the story of Louise Mallard’s dying after learning her husband is still alive? Is the importance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” limited to just Gilman’s narrator’s going mad through seeing a woman trapped within the wallpaper? Why does the story of Emily Grierson’s keeping the body of her murder lover in bed with her matter? For Atwood, the plot becomes the vehicle for the author to shows us a new truth. …

“Happy Endings” – Introduction

This detailed literature summary also contains Further Reading on Happy Endings by Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” first appeared in the 1983 Canadian collection, Murder in the Dark, and it was published in 1994 for American audiences in Good Bones and Simple Murders. Subtitled “Short Fiction and Prose Poems,” Murder in the Dark featured four types of works: autobiographical sketches, travel notes, experimental pieces addressing the nature of writing, and short pieces dealing with typical Atwood themes, notably the relationship between the sexes. “Happy Endings,” which is essentially a self-referential story framework, falls into the third category.

In several thumbnail sketches of different marriages, all of which achieve a traditional “happy ending,” Atwood references both the mechanics of writing, most particularly plot, and the effects of gender stereotyping. In earlier works, including the novel Bodily Harm, as well as speeches, Atwood discusses the writer’s relationship to society. She defined the artist, in part, as “the guardian of the moral and ethical sense of the community.” In “Happy Endings,” Atwood fulfills this role with a challenge that she throws out to those writers who rely on the stereotypical characterization of men and women and to the reader who accepts such gender typing. At the same time, she challenges other writers to more closely examine typical literary convention. Theme

the “happy” couple in “Happy Endings,” whether comprised of John and Mary, John and Madge, or Madge and Fred, enjoys the trappings of middle-class values and represents this element of society. The husband and wife hold professional jobs, earn good money, and make sound investments that afford them some of life’s luxuries, such as nice vacations and a relaxing retirement. Even in the more troublesome aspects of these stories, the couples manifest their middle-class values. In version C, John’s marital crisis is brought on by the fact that he feels his life is settled and dull. This mid-life angst drives him to attempt to boost his self-esteem through an affair with a much-younger woman. Despite the middle-class values that permeate the piece, only in version F does Atwood frankly address them. Style

“Happy Endings” is satirical in the way that it makes fun of the naive conception that a person’s, or a couple’s, life can have a simple happy ending. In version A, John and Mary build a life based on their nice home, rewarding jobs, beloved children, enjoyable vacations, and post-retirement hobbies. They experience one success after another. No problems or difficulties—major let alone minor— are mentioned; as such, their life is completely unreal. Such unreality is emphasized by the events of version B. While John and Mary do not achieve this happy ending, John does achieve it—but with Madge. And in yet another version, Madge achieves this happy ending with Fred. Although all the individuals bring to their relationships a unique past and set of experiences, each couple eventually achieves the exact same ending described in version A. …

Margaret Atwood uses her short story Happy Endings to show that it is not the end of a story that is important it is the middle. She seems to say that the endings are all cliché that the middle is the part that is unique. This holds true with literature versus a beach novel although a beach novel and piece of literature may end the same way it is the rest of the book that makes one different from the other. As she says the true ending is “John and Mary die” the only guarantee in life is death. So since the ending is already known why does it have the tendency to “steal” the spotlight from the rest of the story? Sure in some cases people can guess the middle of a story from the ending, if they find someone died in an electric chair they can assume he committed a crime. However if someone dies from heart failure no one can know anything about his life, they may guess the person ate too much junk food, or drank too much but if they don’t know anything else they can’t guess the middle.

However if someone knows the middle they can guess the ending, if they are told that person “A” had to have triple bypass surgery and that person “B” murdered a few people they can make an educated guess how each story ends. But even the middle of the story is only part of a greater whole, without the beginning of the story no one can tell why certain events happened and what lead to person “A” to doing “action z”. Atwood also says that what happens is not all-important but how it happens and why it happens. According to Atwood, all the whats are just the plot, one thing that happens after another, however the how and the whys are what really make a story more than a story. This is the important part, the hows and the whys are what makes a story literature with out them it makes no difference if the prose is expertly laid out or not it is all still a story nothing more. The step from story to literature is a gray line and is based on personal taste, as Justice Stewart said “I know it when I see it” although he was referring to obscenity it is just as applicable here.

The use of story like this to portray the differences in opinion on what makes a story is pure genius on the part of Atwood, what is even more interesting is the fact that it is also considered literature. The main theme in most literature that divides it from the rest of the stories is that literature tries to make a specific point, and in doing so forces the reader to think about the point that the author is trying to make. In this way it is easy to decide what is literature and what is not, if at the end of a story if the reader’s only thought is “Gee, what a nice story” then it is most definitely not literature, but if instead if the thought is more along the lines of “The author said A, B and C but were they really trying to make a point about D?” it is literature. Although even this test has it’s holes because literature for one person is just a nice story for someone else. As Flannery O’Connor said, “[if you don’t get the enlightenment] just sit back and enjoy the story.”

“Happy Endings” is a short story by Margaret Atwood. It was first published in a 1983 Canadian collection, Murder in the Dark. It includes six stories in one, each ending with death. The author believes that this is the only sure ending to anything. The stories are all inter-related, containing the same characters and similar actions. Behind the obvious meaning of these seemingly pointless stories lies multiple deeper and more profound meanings; exploring, for example, themes of domesticity, welfare, and success. It all ends up with John and Mary dying at the end of the story.

Characters

John – He is one of the main characters of the short story. In A, he is in love with Mary and is happily married to her. In B, he doesn’t feel the same way Mary does for him as he only uses her for her body. He eventually takes a woman named Madge to a restaurant. In the end, he marries her. In C, he is a middle-aged man married to Madge but is in love with twenty-two year old Mary. One day he sees Mary with another man and shoots both of them before shooting himself. Mary – She is the main character of the short story. In A, she is happily married to John and had children with him. In B, Mary is in love with John but is saddened with the fact that he doesn’t love her. In C, she is a twenty-two-year old who is in love with James. She is shot by John. James – He is a twenty-two year old whom Mary has feelings for. He isn’t ready to settle down and prefers to ride his motorcycle. He wants to be free while he’s still young. One day, he and Mary have sex. He is shot by John towards the end. He doesn’t appear anywhere else. Madge – In B, Madge is John’s love interest. She is taken to a restaurant and eventually, they get married. In C, she is John’s wife. In D, she meets a man named Fred. Fred – He is the man Madge meets.

In her short story “Happy Endings”, Margaret Atwood simultaneously displays her feelings about not only the art of creative writing, but also the equally artistic act of living one’s life to the fullest. The story, if it can really be called a “story” in the traditional sense of the word, immediately breaks the thin wall of author/audience by presenting a completely unique structure: that of an outline or a jumbled notebook. By asking the reader, “If you want a happy ending, try A,” Atwood is seemingly giving the reader a choice. Since A must be the happy ending, it implies that there are other, more sinister endings yet to be discovered. Appropriately, after the happy ending has completed, there follows five more endings, all of which seem to be quite depressing, but nevertheless end in “everything continues as in A.” Why would Atwood do this? In each of her scenarios, she creates two main characters, John and Mary appropriately boring names for characters that are so underdeveloped and stereotyped as to be almost comedic.

It would be possible to call them each protagonists, but they are the very definition of flat characters: dull and undeveloped. In fact, the reader is informed of their personality traits not because Atwood shows them through a conflict or a plot rather, she simply tells them. Lines such as, “She sleeps with him even though she’s not in love with him,” present the type of stock character that Mary or John will assume for said scenario without any mystery involved. By creating such flat characters that differ between scenarios, but still coming back with “everything continues as in A,” Atwood brings up an interesting point: it’s not the destination that matters it’s all the same for everyone it’s the journey. In fact, after presenting all of her mock scenarios for the characters, Atwood abruptly changes tone to tell the reader an important fact: “The only authentic ending is the one presented here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” After all, at the end of every person’s life, regardless of how they lived it or what they experienced, they will encounter death.

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Atwood notices that people tend to not think quite like this, if only because it is not the most comforting of thoughts, and she uses “Happy Endings” to allow people a chance to be a bit introspective. “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.” Such is true for writing; such is true for life. With her unconventional structure, caricatures for characters, and sometimes sarcastic tone, Atwood manages to convey one of the most important concepts about life of all. Do not let life become “a what and a what and a what.” Learn to favor the stretch between beginning and end, and then, perhaps, you can make your own happy ending.

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