Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543
“Happiness” begins rather abruptly as the narrator speaks of her mother, Vera, as having “a lot to say.” What the mother discussed, almost incessantly, was her own happiness and happiness as a way to live. However, nearly every other character in the story challenges her assertion of the importance of happiness. For example, Father Hugh, a friend and supporter from a local monastery, challenges it directly by claiming that sorrow is a “necessary ingredient” in happiness, a view that Vera rejects. He also feels that Vera places far too much emphasis on happiness, especially happiness in this world. Vera’s own children question her sharply about her supposed happiness, and they suggest that happiness is not really defined by Vera, that it is not that important, and that one can live without it. Her daughter Bea calls Vera’s insistence on her happiness a “sham.” At times, Vera’s children redefine their mother’s concept of happiness as courage, or persistence; it certainly is something that they notice in their mother’s efforts to maintain happiness in the midst of chaos and loss.
Vera’s mother acts as a foil to her daughter’s insistent happiness. She resolutely refuses to be pleased by anything, and if something seems momentarily pleasant, she comments on its eventual loss. Father Hugh says, “God Almighty couldn’t make that woman happy.” In contrast, Vera’s father was a happy man, even on his deathbed. He nurtured Vera’s happiness and passed along his positive outlook, even though he could not pass it on to his wife.
Vera’s happiness persists in the midst of disappointment and even tragedy. She loses her husband at an early age, but this loss makes her even more determined to maintain her happiness. Indeed, she finds it a continual struggle not to give in to the opposite side and become despondent and reject the joy she finds in the world.
She continually celebrates and embraces life rather than death. When her husband is dying, she brings him pots of daffodils to brighten up his room. She insists on nurturing and protecting the living, even a wasp that has wandered into the house. This may explain why the garden is the one place where she is happy and at rest. It is in the garden that she overdoes her search for happiness. She stays late working in the damp garden and catches a disease that soon after leads to her death.
The climax of the story comes when Vera has to face death and leave the world that she associates with happiness. She says that she cannot face it; she cannot deal with the loss of what has sustained her. Finally, her daughter, Bea, who is described as the family “oracle,” takes charge and takes the role of a mother who is comforting her child. She tells her mother, “It’s all right, Mother. You don’t have to face it. It’s over.” She tells her mother, “You’re finished with this world, Mother.” She is then described as sinking into her pillow so deeply that she would have dented it “had it been a pillow of stone.” It is a final surrender of the struggle to maintain happiness in this world.