"Happy Endings" is more about life's endings and not so much about happiness in between life's beginnings and life's endings. Happiness in life is more a consideration of the "How and Why" with which Atwood ends this escaped of "a what and a what and a what." Since happiness is associated with the how and why, which are reserved by Atwood for another escapade, Atwood may be suggesting that happiness is not related to the whats of life. In fact, the words "happy" and "happiness" never appear in the story. Social history seems to confirm that happiness does not attend on whats--as the adage has it: the richest people may be the most unhappy while the poorest people may be the happiest (not so much possible in today's world, but ...). If the above is agreed upon, then I'd say I agree with Atwood's idea that happiness does not come from whats but from the "how" a thing is done and the "why" a thing is done--the means and the motive--in the string of "whats" of life.
I think, as #2 points out, that actually it is very difficult to define what makes us happy. Atwood paints a variety of different scenarios including aspects of what we believe to make us happy, yet, at the end of the day, the chilling realisation is that the only "certainties" in our life are that we are going to die. Period. I personally think this story points towards the way that happiness isn't something that happens to us, but rather happiness is something we have to forge ourselves out of the "stretch in between" the beginning and the certain ending that we all face. Life can't be predicted or second-guessed. At the end of the day, the only thing we have any control over is our response to the vicissitudes of life.
Thanks, creativethinkiing, for linking to the story. Interesting short story. I was at once reminded of Richard Cory by Edward Arlington Robinson about the man who presumably had everything, but came to a less than happy ending. I think what Atwood is saying is that the happiness everyone craves--the "A" ending--is an illusion. People are quite good at putting up a facade for others to see and that facade appears to others as ones real life. Those who see it in turn believe the facade to represent happiness; yet behind the facade is often deep unhappiness for a variety of reasons. Everyone creates an illusion for the world to see; hides ones dirty laundry so to speak. It is for that reason we are surprised when a marriage fails, an addiction becomes public, an adult child becomes a disappointment, etc. The comment that "if you like happy endings" is quite appropriate; those happy endings, however only exist in the imagination. Most of us are, in Lincoln's words, as happy as we want to be; but when we compare ourselves to the "other," then we are engaged in the relentless "pursuit of happiness." Even then, death is the great leveller of mankind. I am again reminded of the words of Thomas Gray:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
For those who want to join the discussion, here's the link to the eNotes study guide and the full text of this thought-provoking short story.
The question posed by maraine is a difficult one to answer, because I think any statement that Atwood is truly making about what makes us happy is veiled, convoluted, and shifting when we use this story as our map. Of course, the very beginning makes some direct statements about what kinds of things lead to happiness in the eyes of society at large: career, house, wealth, satisfaction in the bedroom, successful children, stimulating hobbies, and tranquility. I would certainly agree that having all of these would make me happy... I think...
That's where the doubt creeps in. What if the love (or the house, or the hobby) that we start out with doesn't work out? What if we "grow out" of a career or relationship, as the other characters in the story do? In those situations, it can be hard to hold on to happiness. Just look at major celebrities in general. They have the capability to essentially purchase any or all of those "happy" things... yet so many end up spiralling into addiction, depression, or delusion. Happiness can be extraordinarily simple or extraordinarily complicated. It depends on a person's situation, personality, desires, luck, and outlook.
P.s. I find it interesting that Atwood mentions absolutely nothing about religion or spirituality. For many people, that's a key to peace, stability, and happiness. It also puts a wrench in the spokes of Atwood's "only" ending--"John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die."