Happy Endings Characters
by Margaret Atwood

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Happy Endings Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While Atwood is writing about people and the very real, sometimes shocking, consequences of their actions and about the pain caused by the overweening power of social stereotypes and selfish values, she is primarily writing about writing, so the characters in "Happy Endings" are essentially caricatures. Characterization is secondary to Atwood's examination of the effects of mass-market fiction.

Nevertheless, there are several distinct characters, including the two main ones, John and Mary. Featured in four of the six mini-stories, John and Mary change according to context; they have the same names but not the same personalities. In story "A," they love each other, get married, settle down, have children, and remain happy together until they die. This is the story Atwood provides for readers who "want a happy ending." John and Mary's jobs, sexual activities, and hobbies are all described as "stimulating and challenging." By means of this self-conscious, numbing repetition, Atwood seems to imply that their story is anything but stimulating and challenging.

Story "B" presents John as a bachelor who, twice a week, uses Mary as a sex object: "Her friends tell her John is a rat, a pig, a dog," but she is gullible and dependent, so she disagrees. She believes that the real John is hiding within and "will emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, a Jack from a box, a pit from a prune, if the first John is only squeezed enough." This passage, though a harbinger of disaster for Mary, represents the humorous side of Atwood that she has complained is often ignored. Reporter Gary Soulsman, covering her April 1985 visit to Wilmington, Delaware, for the News Journal, noted that she was weary of being classified by "journalistic slogans" that "miss the humor in her work."

Story "B" introduces another character. Madge is "the other woman" for whom John abandons Mary, but we see only a glimpse of Madge in this mini-story. Likewise, in story "C," Madge plays only a small role as the wife of the philandering John. However, she is featured prominently in stories "D" and "E." In both of these, she is married to "an understanding man called Fred," who succumbs to heart failure in "E." Neither Fred nor Madge are developed into round characters; they play their predictable parts in stereotypical plots. In story "E," for example, Atwood shows how a writer could cut and paste in different words so that Madge is the one who dies. Both versions are equally romantic and sentimental.

In story "F," Atwood suggests livening up the earlier John-and-Mary stories by making "John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent," which could lead to "a lustful brawling saga of passionate involvement." Nonetheless, she says, the story will still be essentially the same as "A."

The only other character is James, "who has a motorcycle and a fabulous record collection." Introduced in story "C" as an alternative love interest for Mary, he smokes marijuana with her, they go to bed, and "everything becomes very underwater," which is hilarious, especially considering other references in Atwood's work to the purifying and rejuvenating qualities of water, for instance, her 1972 novel Surfacing. Yet in "Happy Endings" she is using the concept as comic relief, and it is an effective inside joke as well as being intrinsically funny.


(Short Stories for Students)

Fred is Madge’s second husband. In one version, he survives a tidal wave, but in another version, he dies.

James appears in version C as Mary’s lover. Only twenty-two years old, James is not ready to settle down. He spends a lot of time riding around on his motorcycle, ‘‘being free.’’ James is killed by John after he catches James and Mary in bed together.

John is the primary male protagonist who meets the primary female protagonist, Mary. In the first version of the story, version A, John is the ideal husband, marrying and raising a family with Mary, working hard and playing well, retiring, and eventually dying after leading a well-spent...

(The entire section is 1,107 words.)