Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is sly, sophisticated, and delightful. With a coy ease that feels so natural, she threads her story along, revealing her characters, drawing the audience into something that isn’t at all what it appears. Slowly yet intensely, she reveals the principal of plot development that she is trying to deliver to her audience. Atwood begins with just fifteen puzzling words. She breaks the rules of conventional writing by using only three sentences for the paragraph, and addresses the reader directly “If you want a happy ending, try A.” Atwood’s “A.” comes off sounding like it should be so fulfilling and charming, yet there are persistent hints of boredom and dullness. “Worthwhile and remunerative,” “stimulating and challenging,” Atwood’s choice for words is so descriptive, and yet they sound so dull. John and Mary, the main characters, fall in love at first. There is no mention of them loving each other ecstatically throughout their lives together, or of them loving each other with abandon, or even dying in each other’s loving arms. They fall in love, yet a “challenging sex life” is not something most people would associate with being in love; an exciting or satisfying sex life would be more like it.
There is very little character exposition or plot development in choice “A.” It feels as though a trap is being set, yet the purpose or when it will spring closed remains unknown. The very first sentence of Atwood’s “B.” smacks the audience in the face: “Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary.” This sentence brings a grimace along with it. Uh oh, here it comes, all the ugliness associated with loving someone who doesn’t love in return. John is selfish, lukewarm in manner, uses Mary for as much as he can get out of her, with as little cost to himself as possible, and it certainly doesn’t cost him very much. Meanwhile, Mary is putting forth as much effort as John will let her, yet all her efforts don’t produce the relationship she desires. Choice “B.” is full of exposition, revealing so much so fast about the reasons John and Mary do what they do makes the characters disgusting and disappointing. Atwood makes the implied predictability of humdrum choice “A.” seem so appealing in retrospect, that she returns the main characters to it. Only it isn’t John and Mary that live happy ever after in “B,” it is John and Madge in this scenario. In “C.”
Atwood writes that John is older and married to Madge. Mary is younger, and this time Mary is the one who isn’t in love with John. Mary is in love with another man (James) who is her own age. John gets his heart broken this time, and purchases a weapon. Atwood informs her audience in a very matter-of-fact manner “this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later.” John kills Mary, James, and himself. Again the plot winds up back at choice “A.” when Madge marries Fred and time marches on. Atwood is spreading the trap open even wider now in choice “D.” She changes the operating names of the protagonists to “Fred and Madge.” The language is becoming very matter-of-fact, with simple sentences stating what happened, not why it happened, and what the end result is. Of course, the end result remains choice “A.” In an almost badgering manner, Atwood continues killing her characters. In choice “E.”
Fred dies first, tragically, but not emotionally, and then Mary dies, after she completes the story line of choice “A.” of course. Atwood addresses the audience directly again, making some suggestions as to how else the story could end, if so chosen. Atwood springs her carefully built trap closed. She throws sentences and ideas directly to her audience with abandon. “If you think this is all to bourgeois…” condescendingly communicating that no matter where the audience wants the story to go, or how many stops it makes on the way, every “authentic” story ends the same way. Atwood’s pace is fast, almost as if she’s literally standing in front of an audience, ranting the words out of her own mouth.
“You’ll have to face it…Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, deliberately fake…the only authentic ending is…” death. What a let down, what a disappointment, how anti-climatic is that? What is the point to the exercise Atwood just performed? But Atwood isn’t finished yet. The last two sentences of Atwood’s “Happy Endings” feel as though they were written especially for aspiring writers studying the elements of fiction. She takes all of the lessons, all of the rules, all of the structure, and simplifies it all down to two sentences. I couldn’t think of a better ending to an essay about plot if I tried. Atwood’s final two sentences to “Happy Endings” go like this: “That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.”
Atwood, Margaret. “Happy endings.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing (1983): 485-491.
Morgan E. Collier
Professor Melinda Hernandez
January 30th, 2015
Outline for Short Story Essay
Essay Topic: Margaret Atwood’s application of the literary device “plot” I. Introduction
Possible ideas for the introduction:
Describe the author’s style of writing
Set the stage for the reveal at the end
Atwood reveals the principal of plot development that she is trying to deliver to her audience. II. Body
A. Main Point:
Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is an excellent example of successful plot formation. B. Examples:
1. Atwood’s sub-section titled “A.” is gives a foundation for the rest of the
story 2. Sub-section’s “B.” and “C.” are full of character exposition, conflict, and rising action, leading to the climax at the end of “C.” 3. Sub-section “D.” and “E.” are falling action following the climax in “C.” 4. Sub-section “F.” contains Atwood’s resolution
She takes all of the lessons, all of the rules, all of the structure, and simplifies it all down to two sentences… “That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.” Other Ideas to Conclude:
Quote from Atwood’s “Happy Endings:” “…Now try How and Why.”
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