Happy Endings Themes
If one accepts Aristotle's classic definitions of comedy and tragedy, then the American Dream is a comedy; i.e., it is a story that begins in chaos and ends in peace. One of Atwood's aims in "Happy Endings" is to show the uncertainty and potential tragedy hovering around that treasured peaceful ending. The imaginary, yet worshipped, rigidity of the structure is often its downfall. The American Dream is just that, a dream, because in reality there is no blueprint for happiness, and as Atwood has said in several interviews, she thinks of every story as a new situation, which is true in life just as it is, or should be, in literature.
In one of Atwood's most widely acclaimed books of poetry, You Are Happy (1974), the last section is entitled "There Is Only One of Everything." The title poem of the book, "You Are Happy," includes perhaps Atwood's definition of happiness. The speaker is walking with a companion in the icy Canadian woods and is so cold that all she can think about is the cold and:
the images hitting into your eyes like needles, crystals, you are happy.
Thus, for Atwood, happiness appears to be a transient feeling linked both to perception and to sensuality. It is not a permanent or rigid structure.
"Happy Endings" touches on several other themes: women versus men; youth versus age; wealth versus happiness; the emptiness of vanity; and the brutality of elitism. In the inner story referred to as "B," Mary is a middle-class working woman who is suicidally jealous, takes an overdose of sleeping pills and aspirins, and washes them down with half a bottle of sherry. "You can see what kind of a woman she is by the fact that it's not even whiskey," Atwood writes, ironically and satirically catering to and simultaneously skewering the smugness of certain readers.
Although such themes have always been important to Atwood, they are overshadowed in "Happy Endings" by other themes that are closely related to each other: the escapist nature of most popular fiction and the joy and possibilities of the alternatives, existentialism and experimentalism, which focus on the processes of life as opposed to the products. "You'll have to face it," Atwood writes,
the endings are the same. . . . Don't be deluded by any other endings, they're all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.
In other words, some escapist fiction is created expressly to fool the public into buying it and its cotton-candy view of the world; other escapist fiction is simply wrongheaded. As Wallace Stevens notes in his "Adagia"(collected in Opus Posthumous, 1957), "Sentimentality is a failure of feeling."
In the section called "Circe / Mud Poems" in You Are Happy, Circe says to Ulysses, "It's the story that counts . . . you leave in the story and the story is ruthless." It is the same old tragedy. But there is another story, which focuses on the unknown future. Circe knows nothing about this one "because it has never happened." It represents a beginning rather than an ending because it is based on what may happen as opposed to what is supposed to happen; it is more a journey than a closed book. "Beginnings are always more fun," Atwood writes in "Happy Endings." "True connoisseurs, however, are known to favour the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with." Speaking of that "stretch," as Leonard Woolf once pointed out, "The journey not the arrival matters." (He used this sentence, a capsule mantra for existentialism, as the title of his last volume of autobiography, published in 1969).
What Atwood is chiefly concerned with in "Happy Endings" is the ethics of aesthetics, specifically the potentially corrosive effects of escapism on the minds of readers. When one embraces and idolizes an image or a pattern, one becomes subjugated and surrenders the power inherent in freedom. Thus, the implicit warning in Atwood's story is that one should avoid buying into, or at least...
(The entire section is 1,400 words.)