Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

‘‘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.

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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 ‘‘a vehicle for social and literary satire.

Chase singles out ‘‘Happy Endings’’ for its ‘‘ruthless insight and pessimism.’’ Carrington notes that it is ‘‘ironically titled’’ in its satirization of the ‘‘plots of romances’’ in which ‘‘there are no happy endings because all lovers must die.’’ Carrington points out how this brief piece takes on greater meaning: ‘‘the fictional narrative suddenly turns into explicit literary criticism.’’

Murder in the Dark was combined with another volume of Atwood’s short pieces, Good Bones, and published in the United States in 1994 as Good Bones and Simple Murders. Good Bones is primarily a collection of updated, feminist fairy tales, and in review, critics tend to focus more on the analysis of these pieces. However, Donna Seaman points out in Booklist that Atwood ‘‘continues to question the roots of our assumptions about gender roles, testing our shaky sense of progress toward equality,’’ all while infusing these pieces with her characteristic ‘‘anger, shrewdness, sass, and humor.’’shrewdness, sass, and humor.’’

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