Happy Endings Essays and Criticism
by Margaret Atwood

Start Your Free Trial

Download Happy Endings Study Guide

Subscribe Now

How Happy Endings Critiques Various Elements of Contemporary Society

(Short Stories for Students)

Atwood’s ‘‘Happy Endings,’’ containing issues and themes that have concerned the author throughout her career, defies easy categorization. Is it a satirical piece criticizing the genre of romantic fiction and the roles it provides its female characters? Is it an oblique challenge to authors who rely too much on traditional and unoriginal writing conventions? Is it a witty demonstration of Atwood’s creative imagination? Is it a sly dig at contemporary society? Is it a pessimistic account of the relationship between the sexes? Indeed, despite its brevity, ‘‘Happy Endings’’ contains distinct elements of all of these; Atwood brings these elements together to create a humorous but biting criticism of contemporary society, lazy authors, and gender stereotyping.

‘‘Happy Endings’’ opens with Atwood setting up a distinct situation, one that is grounded in reality: ‘‘John and Mary meet. What happens next?’’ Atwood then provides the reader with a specific instruction: ‘‘If you want a happy ending, try A.’’ Thus, only three lines into the piece, Atwood has piqued the reader’s interest with words that show that this story is not a typical story at all. Instead of providing a linear storyline, as most literary works do, Atwood offers readers both a choice of where to proceed next (though most probably will read ‘‘Happy Endings’’ straight through) and alternative endings and scenarios.

Initially, version A seems very different from the versions that follow. Version A is brief and nondescriptive. Atwood, usually a vivid writer, chooses to recycle only a few adjectives. John and Mary have ‘‘stimulating and challenging’’ jobs and hobbies. They have a ‘‘stimulating and challenging’’ sex life. Their friends are ‘‘worthwhile,’’ and so are their jobs. Other adjectives that Atwood selects are so bland as to virtually provide no information about John and Mary’s life; they go on ‘‘fun vacations’’; they own a ‘‘charming house.’’ Version A reads less like a work of fiction and more like an uninspired outline.

Version B differs radically from version A although it, too, features John and Mary. After their first meeting, Mary (like Mary from version A) falls in love with John, but at that point the similarities end. John does not return Mary’s affection but ‘‘merely uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind.’’ Additionally, version B includes evocative details about John and Mary as well as specific language. John ‘‘f——’’ Mary, falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he ‘‘doesn’t even notice [how Mary looks].’’ Then he ‘‘goes out the door with hardly so much as a goodnight.’’ Thus readers learn what kind of a man John is and how he relates to Mary and women in general. Version B is much richer than version A as readers are provided concrete facts about John and Mary. Readers may thus extend their own analysis beyond the specifics that Atwood provides.

Atwood uses these details to ensure that readers will clearly understand John and Mary’s relationship (and in case they do not, Atwood points out the relevancy of these details, as in her aside, ‘‘[Y]ou’ll notice that he doesn’t even consider her worth the price of a dinner out.’’) As Mary comes to grasp what the relationship means to John, she sinks into depression. The Mary who next emerges is a realistic depiction of a woman stuck in a bad relationship. Her friends attack John—he is ‘‘a rat, a pig, a dog, he isn’t good enough for her’’—and she defends him—‘‘she can’t believe it,’’ and a ‘‘much nicer’’ John will appear. Ultimately, her insistence on holding onto a fantasy results in her death by suicide—perhaps the ultimate in melodramatic plot twists, just the type that thrive in romance fiction. Then, ‘‘John marries Madge and everything continues as in A.’’

Version C also features John and...

(The entire section is 4,731 words.)