How does Atwood use punctuation and mechanical markings in the story, “Happy Endings”?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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In "Happy Endings" Margaret Atwood uses punctuation in some unusual ways throughout her story about exploring the "What" ("just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what") of story plot writing. Some of her long connections of clauses, which are joined by commas, may not be precisely written according to prescriptive Standard English punctuation requirements, as is the case in this sample:

He comes to her apartment twice a week and she cooks him dinner, you'll notice that he doesn't even consider her worth the price of a dinner out, and after he's eaten dinner he **** her and after that he falls asleep, while she does the dishes so he won't think she's untidy, having all those dirty dishes lying around, and puts on fresh lipstick so she'll look good when he wakes up, but when he wakes up he doesn't even notice, he puts on his socks and his shorts and his pants and his shirt and his tie and his shoes, the reverse order from the one in which he took them off.

This passage, which is constructed as one sentence, would, according to standard prescriptive requirements, most probably be punctuated as follows:

He comes to her apartment twice a week [comma needed to separate different subjects: he / she] and she cooks him dinner, [comma would be replaced by an opening emdash ( -- ) to indicate an explanatory clause] you'll notice that he doesn't even consider her worth the price of a dinner out, [closing emdash] and after he's eaten dinner he **** her and after that he falls asleep, while she does the dishes so he won't think she's untidy, [comma fills in for an omitted preposition "from" and necessitates the closing comma after the word "around"] having all those dirty dishes lying around, and puts on fresh lipstick so she'll look good when he wakes up, but when he wakes up he doesn't even notice, [comma replaced by semicolon to join closely related thoughts that could be separated by a period] he puts on his socks and his shorts and his pants and his shirt and his tie and his shoes, [this comma correctly prescriptively separates a which-clause with an omitted which] the reverse order from the one in which he took them off.

Many of her sentences are generally short and to the point (e.g., "John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up."). When Atwood does indulge in a long sentences, they are generally compounds connected by conjunctions, like and and but, or they are subordinated complex sentences with dependent clauses that may be wh-clauses (e.g., "who has a motorcycle"; "when they have time").

Atwood chooses, as some writers do, to use which--which is prescriptively recognized as a nonrestrictive relative pronoun--in restrictive sentences (e.g., "jobs which they find"; "a charming house which they bought"; prescriptively, these would be written with that). The conclusion of the story displays elaborate mechanical manipulation of words and spaces.

The    only    authentic    ending    is    the    one    provided    here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

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