What are the main ideas and issues in "Happy Endings" by Margaret Atwood?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main idea in "Happy Endings" is an exploration of the what of story plot writing. Margaret Atwood makes the case that, when carried to their logical conclusion, all stories end with "and they die." She stresses that it is the events that occur between the beginning and the end that are of most interest and difficulty, while it is the beginnings that are the most fun. In "Happy Endings" Atwood contrasts the what of plot development to the how of means and the why of motive, while suggesting that these are the far more challenging parts of story and character development.

The issues that Atwood uses to illustrate her main idea are love and relationships and marriage. John and Mary are the central figures in "Happy Endings," and Atwood gives them several scenarios for endings, all of which return to ending A, which is "John and Mary die." Regardless of how many happy or painful elements Atwood adds, she insists in a relativist manner that the endings are all the same: "John and Mary die."

While this is true, a non-relativist might question Atwood's assertions by posing a counter-argument that the kind of death one experiences may matter to one's deceased self and to one's survivors, just as one questions Katherine Mansfield's ending in "The Garden Party," an ending overshadowed by the gloom of the kind of death the young man suffered, a question made valid by the contorted face and mind of the weeping, grieving widow by the fireplace.

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Happy Endings

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