Happy Endings Critical Overview
by Margaret Atwood

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘Happy Endings’’ first appears in Atwood’s 1983 collection, Murder in the Dark: Short Fiction and Prose Poems. As Elspeth Cameron points out in the book Saturday Night, Murder in the Dark was ‘‘dramatically new [in] . . . its form’’ because Atwood ‘‘dispenses with the plot line that usually provides the skeleton for her fiction.’’ Kathy Mezei, writing in West Coast Review, comments that in this collection Atwood is ‘‘pointedly not writing her usual cryptic poems or ironic novels; she is making notations of experiences, feeling, or the act of writing.’’ K. Chase, however, in World Literature Today, finds this ‘‘unusual and disturbing’’ collection to be ‘‘characteristic’’ of Atwood’s literary work.

Ildikó de Papp Carrington, writing for The Women’s Review of Books believes that the collection ‘‘can be fully understood only in the context of [Atwood’s] previous work.’’ The book is divided into four sections. Both the third (to which ‘‘Happy Endings’’ belongs) and the fourth deal with ‘‘some of the major recurrent themes in Atwood’s writing: the nature and purpose of fiction, the moral responsibility of the author as witness, and the relationship between the sexes in fiction and in reality.’’

Despite her favorable review, Cameron understands that the collection would ‘‘undoubtedly arouse the anti-Atwoods to redouble their attacks.’’ She is able to pinpoint specific negative commentary that some readers would pose: ‘‘What, no plot?. . . Does she think writing is all there is to life?’’ Cameron attempts to answer these rhetorical questions: ‘‘To some extent, her critics will be right; the book could have been called Atwood’s Sketch Book or Themes and Variations.’’ Cameron, however, does not believe this is a drawback. She finds that when the pieces were read together, they resonate with Atwood’s larger concerns as a writer and as a woman.

What Mezei finds most interesting in Murder in the Dark is Atwood’s ‘‘comments on the structures and clichés, particularly narrative and plot, of fiction.’’ Carrington notes Atwood’s humor, which she uses as...

(The entire section is 497 words.)