Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”

So you may have found that this week’s reading left you with quite a few questions, such as, “What did I just read?” Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is not a typical short story. In fact, we could even raise the question of whether it actually is a short story or not. “Happy Endings” is an example of metafiction. You may want to think of metafiction this way: it is a writer writing about writing.  To clarify, in metafiction, an author writes a story in order make the reader think about the nature of a story.  With metafiction, the author becomes self-reflective about the act of writing. Did you notice those moments in “Happy Endings” when Atwood comments on the story she is writing? (For example, in plot C, the voice of the author mentions, “…this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later” [767].) Atwood’s goal is for the reader to contemplate what is the essence of a story.

“If you want a happy ending, try A.”

“Happy Endings” primarily consists of 6 different bare-bone plots stemming from the very basic catalyst: “John and Mary meet.” Plot A – the one recommended it we want a “happy ending” – presents the ideal married life of Mary and John: they enjoy well-paying, fulfilling careers;the value of their house skyrockets, their children “turn out well;” they go one vacation;and even get to retire. (Heck, their sex-life together doesn’t even fade!) Atwood offers Plot A as the stereotypical, cliched “happy ending.” The problem with Plot A, at least as far as storytelling goes, there’s no drama. Here the couple does not face any conflict, crisis, or tension. Without crisis, there’s no character development. John and Mary become merely empty names; there’s no reason to care for them. While a “happy ending,” Plot A falls completely flat. (Plot A reminds me of a quotation from Leo Tolstoy: “All families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)

Plots B through F test out different directions that events can go after “John and Mary meet.” Each of these plots are remarkably predictable, mainly since they are based on cliched, stock characters. Plot B places Mary in the role of the unrequited lover, just hoping that John, the insensitive male, will come to see how much she truly cares for him. (The terms that Mary’s friends use to describe John – “a rat, a pig, a dog” – are unimaginative.) In Plot C, John takes on the part of the insecure, middle-aged man seeking assurance from a much younger woman, Mary. Plot D is the well recognizable disaster story, like last year’s film “The Impossible”. If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook,”  you are already familiar with Plot E. Finally, Plot F resembles that of the story of lovers caught up in the political turmoils of their time.

However, whatever the plot maybe, we always end with Plot A. The names of the characters may change and “in between you may get a lustful, brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times, sort of” but the ending to the story will always be the same (767). Is this because, according to Atwood, readers will only accept this idealized ending for tales of romance?  Could Atwood be commenting on readers’ expectations for how the story will end when two lovers meet? Moreover, is Atwood claiming there is something false about Plot A? Atwood emphatically states near the end of “Happy Endings” is that “the only authentic ending” is: “John and May die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” Adopting a bleak outlook, Atwood argues that the one ending that we all will share in and so rings true is death.

Now rather than leave us on that depressing note, Atwood offers a bit of hope, “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun” (676). If you consider this statement, Atwood is right. Generally, romantic tales don’t open with the couple being married, with a home and children. Instead, the story of a couple centers on how they get together – what are the obstacles, the emotional turmoil, they face to reach their Plot A? From William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Nicholas Sparks, marriage is a conclusion not a beginning. The drama lies in everything the lovers have to do to reach that point.

“Now try How and Why”

In the final three paragraphs, Atwood identifies where the essence of a story lies.  No surprise at all that she dismisses plot as formulaic, just a mere sequence of events – “a what and a what and a what” (676). Looking back on over Plots A through F, that is all she gives us. John and Mary’s characters are left undeveloped; again, we could interchange their names with those of Madge and Fred, while leaving the plot the same. We don’t care about John and Mary because we don’t have the chance to get to know them.

Also, at the end of each plot Atwood leaves us with the question of what is the point of the story. There’s an emptiness felt after reading each plot. Why tell us the story? Generally, we, as readers, look for authors through their writings to give us some insight into our world. Stories have themes, morals, profound messages that go beyond just the bones of the plot. Consider some of the short stories that we have read so far this term. Is it just that Chopin gives us the story of Louise Mallard’s dying after learning her husband is still alive? Is the importance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” limited to just Gilman’s narrator’s going mad through seeing a woman trapped within the wallpaper? Why does the story of Emily Grierson’s keeping the body of her murder lover in bed with her matter? For Atwood, the plot becomes the vehicle for the author to shows us a new truth.

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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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