In "Happy Endings," what is Atwood saying about gender roles in Canada at the time when the story was written?

In "Happy Endings," Margaret Atwood satirizes the idea of a perfect ending in which the characters live "happily ever after." Atwood makes it clear that the authentic ending to any version of these stories is that "John and Mary die," but it is in the how and the why that they die that is of import. Though both genders suffer, the women in their roles suffer more long-term, the outcomes of their lives indifferent to the choices that they make.

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In "Happy Endings," Margaret Atwood uses the "choose your own adventure" trope—popular in the 1980s, when her short story was written—to highlight and satirize gender roles in traditional Western relationships.

If A is the titular "happy," uncomplicated ending, each successive iteration of the story sees the relationship become...

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In "Happy Endings," Margaret Atwood uses the "choose your own adventure" trope—popular in the 1980s, when her short story was written—to highlight and satirize gender roles in traditional Western relationships.

If A is the titular "happy," uncomplicated ending, each successive iteration of the story sees the relationship become more complex.

Often, the emotional weight of that complexity rests on the women. In option B, for example, Mary exerts the effort of a marriage and relationship with John, while John simply stops in twice a week for dinner and sex while formally courting Madge. In version C, Mary maintains a relationship with John out of guilt and pity, and John in turn cheats on Madge before killing Mary and her lover James.

This isn't to say bad things don't happen to the men in "Happy Endings"—the men do suffer, too. Fred, in one iteration, endures a tidal wave. In another, a bad heart. James, in version C, is collateral damage when John becomes enraged at and then kills Mary. But these consequences are, to some degree, by-products of the events surrounding those men—they're not, as in the women's cases, culminations of a longer, more difficult lived experience. James, for example, is eventually killed by John, but he does not bear the long-term weight of John's misplaced affections over time the way Mary does.

As Atwood herself notes in the ending, each story ends the same way—John and Mary die. This is true no matter the dynamic—whether it's the "happy" ending of version A, or the tragic, unrequited ending of version B. The story, she says, is in the how and why—it's not about what these characters do. It's about what makes them do it.

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Atwood seems to criticize the double standards concerning the female gender role in Canada at the time she wrote this story. In Part B, for instance, Mary does all the stereotypical wifely duties for John (though she is not his wife)—cooking, cleaning, keeping make-up on even first thing in the morning, "dying" for sex with him—and, still, she is not happy and does not get what she wants. Mary sort of accidentally kills herself, hoping to get John's attention, and John marries another woman. Mary has seemed to do everything right, everything society would likely tell her to do in order to catch a good husband, and it doesn't work. She is miserable and unfulfilled.

In Part C, the narrator claims that "Freedom isn't the same for girls," explaining that Mary can't escape from her life the same way James can. Mary wants to be with James but conducts an affair with John because she feels sorry for him and because James isn't around much. When John finds Mary in bed with James, he kills them both and then himself. This Mary does the opposite of the Mary of Part B, and she still dies. Women seem to be damned if they do and damned if they don't; if they act the part of the dutiful wife, they die sad and unfulfilled, and the same happens if they don't.

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Atwood's short story was published in 1983, two years before her famous novel The Handmaid's Tale. While that novel tells the story of a future society that systematically abuses women, "Happy Endings" is more concerned with how women are represented in plots. The lack of choice for women in the story--no matter what plot option you choose, the woman is always subservient to a man--reflects a larger sense in Canadian society that women lack opportunities that are "stimulating and fulfilling." The fact that every plot variation ends with the banality of plot A, the "happy ending" ("Remember, this is Canada," Atwood advises) and the "only authentic ending" in which "John and Mary die," suggests that Atwood feels that Canadian women are always defined in relationship to men, but also that the whole notion of reducing lives to plots is simplistic. Her final words in the story, suggesting that "how and why" might be more fruitful ways to think about life rather than plot--which is simply a "what and a what and a what"--provide a clue about what Atwood thinks might be a way out for women.

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Margaret Atwood is a distinguished feminist Canadian author whose work often critiques established Canadian gender roles. In her story "Happy Endings", Atwood satirizes the notion of the perfect ending to a story in which a woman protagonist finds fulfillment by getting married and living "happily ever after". First, as the narrator points out, because humans are mortal, the narrative of every human ends with that person's death, even if the author does not include it in the story.

The next issue Atwood raises is the image of happiness as consisting of a marriage. In the first "happy ending", we have the cliched ideal of a happy marriage. In the subsequent stories, we have a more realistic sense of how gender roles operated in Canada in the period. First, we see the dynamic in which women were in theory the partners who stayed home and cooked while men had more active and interesting lives; the version in which Madge devotes her life to charity after the death of her husband is an example of this. 

Next, we see the interaction of ageism and gender. We see John's anxiety about his age leading to an affair with a younger woman. In general, sex appeal is associated purely with youth in the universe of the story.

One also gets a sense of Canada as still homophobic in the period in which the story was written, as none of the relationship variants include any sense of possible gay, bisexual, queer, transgender or nonheteronormative relationships. We also see a society in which white anglophone Canadians exist in an ethnically uniform world quite different from today's Canada. 

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