The Constitution Act
Canada’s original constitution was an act of Britain’s Parliament, and since the 1930s, Canadian officials and politicians have worked to bring the Constitution under direct Canadian control. Not until 1972 did Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau finally win unanimous agreement for a complex package including a formula for amending the Canadian constitution, a role for the provinces in choosing Supreme Court judges, and a transfer of some other powers to the provinces. When Quebec’s premier backed out of the agreement, however, negotiations had to begin again, and the amending and modernization of the Constitution was delayed. In September 1980, federal and provincial leaders met again to work out terms of a new Canadian constitution, but a compromise that satis- fied the provincial and federal governments was not negotiated until November 1981. While the provincial governments, for the most part, accepted the proposed constitution, many Canadians—particularly feminists, aboriginals, the disabled, and ethnic minorities—were not satisfied. Many of these groups lobbied for changes, resulting in an ‘‘Equality Clause’’ proclaiming that men, women, and the disabled would be guaranteed complete equality before the law. Canada’s new Constitution Act was finally signed on April 17, 1982.
The Canadian Economy and Government
In the early 1980s, Canada experienced a recession, leading many...
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‘‘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.
Atwood’s satire is twofold. It focuses on the unrealistic situation that she creates, which draws on an understanding that humans still hope for a simple ‘‘happy ending,’’ as well as on the romantic genre of fiction that perpetuates this fantasy. Atwood’s piece posits that whether a person’s life is straightforward and uneventful or fraught with serious difficulties, a happy ending can always be achieved. However, Atwood expects her reader to understand that this is not true and discern her real message—that a happy ending does not exist, and in fact, that...
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Postmodern writers have carried the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of the earlier avant-garde and expressionist movements to new heights of utility and meaning, and Atwood is one of the finest literary artists using this technique. In many of her works, including "Happy Endings," she often reminds readers that they are reading, that literature is a constructed series of patterns based on words and images, and that "losing oneself" in a story is the psychological equivalent of sleeping or temporarily dying. She forces readers to examine their own lives through the lives of her characters, she encourages them to look closely at the writing itself, and she discourages any complete suspension of disbelief. Such a style is often called "metafiction."
Mary McCarthy, reviewing Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) for the New York Times Book Review, complained that the plot is "untenable." Of course it is. The novel is artistic science fiction being used to make aesthetic and political points. Atwood does not claim that she writes realistic fiction or that any of her plots must absolutely make sense. She is attempting to be original, to create rather than re-create, and thus she is a daring, courageous writer who is not always successful. However, she is committed to her art and to human rights. Philosophy, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, is essentially a battle against allowing our minds to be "bewitched by words" (Philosophical...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Although Margaret Atwood has been called "the reigning superstar of Canadian literature" (one of the "journalistic slogans" she dislikes), although she has received worldwide acclaim, and although she has often tried to avoid the label, she seems doomed to be commonly referred to as a feminist author, as opposed to being known as a great writer who is interested in exploring gender roles and oppression of females, along with many other topics. The critic Richard T. Marin, for example, writing in the American Spectator, claims that Atwood's main focus during the 1970s and early 1980s was "women as victims—a theme that was to become her obsession" (January 1987). Yet throughout her poetry, fiction, and critical prose, Atwood has also shown men as victims and has attempted to demonstrate how both men and women can avoid victimization.
Aside from an early failed marriage, Atwood has lived what many would call an alternative lifestyle, choosing a decades long cohabitation with novelist Graeme Gibson rather than marriage. (They are the parents of a daughter, Jess, and two sons, Matthew and Graeme Jr.) This lifestyle choice has led some critics to claim that Atwood's feminist views prevent her from entering the patriarchal institution of marriage. She has countered that her refusal to marry is simply "sloppiness" and that after living together so long, she and Gibson believe it would be ludicrous to "make a big production out of it" and get married...
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The winner of the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret Atwood has long been an icon of Canadian literature because of her groundbreaking, multilayered fiction, her poetry, and her critical writing. Her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) remains a touchstone for scholars and students alike. Atwood's narratives and poems often focus on strong or victimized female characters, so she has been labeled (and early in her career was marginalized as) a feminist by many critics, even though she has denied having a single political agenda whenever the subject has arisen in interviews. Rather than be viewed as a feminist writer, she prefers to be viewed as a writer who happens to be female, and her social concerns are much more aligned with Amnesty International than with the National Organization of Women. In other words, she is more involved with human rights than she is with women's liberation, although feminism is clearly a part of her multifaceted ideology.
True to form for Atwood, "Happy Endings" includes some pungent, though brief, comments about the longstanding, pervasive rigidity of male and female social roles and the way those preconceptions can handicap girls and women: in fact, the text asserts: "Freedom isn't the same for girls". In "Happy Endings," though, Atwood is more concerned with literary stereotypes and expectations. This story is about all stories and includes several narratives within it,...
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Compare and Contrast
1980s: By the middle of the decade, Canada’s population stands at about 26 million. Of this, about 18 million Canadians are married.
Today: The population of Canada is about 31 million. Of this, 14.5 million Canadians are married.
1980s: In 1981, 8.2 million Canadians live in private dwellings. The average private household has 2.9 members.
Today: In 1996, 10.8 million Canadians live in private dwellings. The average private household has 2.6 members.
1980s: By the end of the 1980s, female workers earn an average of 59 percent of what male workers earn.
Today: In 1998, female workers earn an average of 64 percent of what male workers earn.
1980s: By the end of the 1980s, among husbandwife families, 62.8 percent are dual-earner families, 22.8 percent are single-earner families, and 14.4 percent of families have neither spouse earning money.
Today: In 1998, among husband-wife families, 60.4 percent are dual-earner families, 22.5 are single-earner families, and 17.1 percent of families have neither spouse earning money.
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Topics for Further Study
Write a short piece similar to ‘‘Happy Endings’’ that deals with the ‘‘how’’ and ‘‘why’’ of storytelling as opposed to the ‘‘what.’’
Research the literary concepts of metafiction and postmodernism. Do you think ‘‘Happy Endings’’ falls into either or both of these categories? Explain your answer.
Write a version G for the story that differs significantly from any of the versions Atwood wrote but is still thematically and stylistically related.
Imagine that you were conducting an interview with Atwood after reading this piece. What questions would you ask her? What do you think her answers might be?
Write a rebuttal to Atwood’s assertion that there are no happy endings because all endings end in death.
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The most obvious precedent for the self reflexive, metafictional style of "Happy Endings" is "Lost in the Funhouse," the comic yet poignant title story of John Barth's 1968 collection of short fiction. Other works are Richard Brautigan's surreal novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), which ends with a chapter titled "2,000 Endings Per Second," and Edward Albee's absurdist one-act play, The Sandbox (1960), in which Mommy and Daddy hear "an off-stage rumble" and the Young Man admits that "the studio" has yet to give him a name. Albee has claimed that realism is the literary form that should properly be labeled absurd—an aesthetic viewpoint that Atwood apparently shares.
By calling attention to itself, self-reflexive literature creates an unusual tension in the reader, a sense that something is happening which is out of the ordinary, that a cherished, perhaps worshipped, pattern is being desecrated or at least tampered with. Sophisticated readers will see such postmodern writing as healthy because it questions previously conceived notions of acceptability, and without such probing, nothing new is possible. The fact that Atwood and others place the questioning in the foreground rather than slipping it between the lines may be seen as refreshing or irritating, depending on the tastes of the individual reader. Certainly such writing can be exciting and challenging.
Nowhere is this style accomplished with more flair and...
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Closely related to "Happy Endings" are the other stories contained with it in the same third section of Murder in the Dark, the title story; "Simmering"; "Women's Novels"; "Bread"; and "The Page." Because Arwood's work appears to be a natural continuum, though, all her writings are logically related in one way or another. Her brave, idiosyncratic style and her consistent, sharply felt concerns have not changed since the beginning of her literary career. In The Blind Assassin, for example, there are stories within stories and the vociferous aversion to oppression and dishonesty that one sees all through Atwood's oeuvre, beginning with Double Persephone (1961),her first poetry collection.
The story "Murder in the Dark" presents the writer as a character who just might be a murderer; it compares literature to a game that seems to be harmless but may be deadly. "The thing about this game," Atwood writes, "is that you have to know when to stop."
In "Simmering," Atwood turns traditional male and female roles upside-down, so that readers see men obsessed with cooking and women absorbed in business. Self-reflexively the speaker/writer says: "It is subversive of me even to write these words. I am doing so, at the risk of my own personal freedom." Notwithstanding this overstated danger, the story is one of the funniest in the book.
"Women's Novels" is a series of proclamations on literature that tend to be humorously...
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What Do I Read Next?
Atwood’s Murder in the Dark (1983), in which ‘‘Happy Endings’’ first appeared, contains short pieces that playfully focus on language, perception, and storytelling.
French-Canadian author Marie Claire Blais has published her journal, American Notebooks: A Writer’s Journey (1996).
John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is a collection of short experimental pieces in which the author explores the creative process.
Argentian writer Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1963) questions traditional narrative progress and endings with this open-ended novel set in the expatriate world of Paris.
Carol Anshaw’s Aquamarine (1992) opens at the 1968 Summer Olympics as a young swimmer falls in love for the first time. Then the novel shifts to 1990 and shows the three different paths that its heroine could have chosen.
Pale Fire (1962) by Vladmir Nabokov consists of a long poem and commentary on it by an insane intellectual in a parody of literary scholarship.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cameron, Elspeth, ‘‘In Darkest Atwood,’’ in Saturday Night, Vol. 1, No. 7, April 1984, pp. 12–13.
Carrington, Ildikó de Papp, ‘‘Dark Designs,’’ in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 98, No. 3, March 1983, pp. 70, 72.
Chase, K., Review of Murder in the Dark, in World Literature Today, Winter 1985, p. 101.
Mezei, Kathy, Review of Murder in the Dark, in West Coast Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, October 1983, p. 51–52.
Seaman, Donna, Review of Good Bones and Simple Murders, in Booklist, Vol. 91, No. 5, November 1, 1994, p. 458.
Atwood, Margaret, Margaret Atwood: Conversations, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, Ontario Review Press, 1990. This volume collects twenty-one interviews with Atwood during the period 1972–1989.
———, ‘‘Then and Now: Canada’s Premier Woman of Letters Takes a Razor-Sharp Look at the State of Canadian Literature,’’ in Macleans, July 1, 1999, p. 54. In this essay, Atwood discusses Canadian literature.
Morris, Mary, ‘‘The Art of Fiction,’’ in Biblio, December 1998, p. 24. In this interview, Atwood discusses criteria for the successful short story, focusing on rhythm and language.
Stein, Karen F., Margaret Atwood Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1999. This book contains an overview of Atwood’s...
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