Margaret Atwood’s ‘‘Happy Endings’’ first appeared in the 1983 Canadian collection, Murder in the Dark, and it was published in 1994 for American audiences in Good Bones and Simple Murders. Subtitled ‘‘Short Fiction and Prose Poems,’’ Murder in the Dark featured four types of works: autobiographical sketches, travel notes, experimental pieces addressing the nature of writing, and short pieces dealing with typical Atwood themes, notably the relationship between the sexes. ‘‘Happy Endings,’’ which is essentially a self-referential story framework, falls into the third category.
In ‘‘Happy Endings,’’ Atwood fulfills this role with a challenge that she throws out to those writers who rely on the stereotypical characterization of men and women and to the reader who accepts such gender typing. At the same time, she challenges other writers to more closely examine typical literary convention (1).
Margaret Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Her childhood was divided between the city and the country. Her family spent the school year in Ottawa and Toronto, where her father taught entomology or worked for government agencies, and summers in northern Quebec and Ontario where her father conducted research.
These early experiences away from urban society encouraged Atwood to read and develop her imagination. As a child, Atwood composed and illustrated poems, which she collected into small books. She wrote prose and poetry for her high school drama class. In her short story “Happy Endings”, Margaret Atwood simultaneously displays her feelings about not only the art of creative writing, but also the equally artistic act of living one’s life to the fullest. The story, if it can really be called a “story” in the traditional sense of the word, immediately breaks the thin wall of author/audience by presenting a completely unique structure: that of an outline or a jumbled notebook. By asking the reader, “If you want a happy ending, try A,” Atwood is seemingly giving the reader a choice.
Since “A” must be the happy ending, it implies that there are other, more sinister endings yet to be discovered. Appropriately, after the happy ending has completed, there follows five more endings, all of which seem to be quite depressing, but nevertheless end in “everything continues in A” Margaret Atwood uses her short story Happy Endings to show that it is not the end of a story that is important it is the middle. She seems to say that the endings are all cliché that the middle is the part that is unique. This holds true with literature versus a beach novel although a beach novel and piece of literature may end the same way it is the rest of the book that makes one different from the other. As she says the true ending is “John and Mary die” the only guarantee in life is death. So since the ending is already known why does it have the tendency to “steal” the spotlight from the rest of the story? Sure in some cases people can guess the middle of a story from the ending, if they find someone died in an electric chair they can assume he committed a crime.
However if someone dies from heart failure no one can know anything about his life, they may guess the person ate too much junk food, or drank too much but if they don’t know anything else they can’t guess the middle. However if someone knows the middle they can guess the ending, if they are told that person “A” had to have triple bypass surgery and that person “B” murdered a few people they can make an educated guess how each story ends. But even the middle of the story is only part of a greater whole, without the beginning of the story no one can tell why certain events happened and what lead to person “A” to doing “action z”. Atwood also says that what happens is not all-important but how it happens and why it happens. According to Atwood, all the what’s are just the plot, one thing that happens after another, however the how and the whys are what really make a story more than a story.
This is the important part, the how’s and the whys are what makes a story literature with out them it makes no difference if the prose is expertly laid out or not it is all still a story nothing more. The step from story to literature is a gray line and is based on personal taste, as Justice Stewart said “I know it when I see it” although he was referring to obscenity it is just as applicable here. The use of story like this to portray the differences in opinion on what makes a story is pure genius on the part of Atwood, what is even more interesting is the fact that it is also considered literature.
The main theme in most literature that divides it from the rest of the stories is that literature tries to make a specific point, and in doing so forces the reader to think about the point that the author is trying to make. In this way it is easy to decide what is literature and what is not, if at the end of a story if the reader’s only thought is “Gee, what a nice story” then it is most definitely not literature, but if instead if the thought is more along the lines of “The author said A, B and C but were they really trying to make a point about D?” it is literature. Although even this test has it’s holes because literature for one person is just a nice story for someone else. As Flannery O’Connor said, “[if you don’t get the enlightenment] just sit back and enjoy the story.
Why would Atwood do this? In each of her scenarios, she creates two main characters, John and Mary appropriately boring names for characters that are so underdeveloped and stereotyped as to be almost comedic. It would be possible to call them each protagonist, but they are the very definition of flat characters: dull and undeveloped. In fact, the reader is informed of their personality traits not because Atwood shows them through a conflict or a plot rather, she simply tells them. Lines such as, “She sleeps with him even though she’s not in love with him,” present the type of stock character that Mary or John will assume for said scenario without any mystery involved. By creating such flat characters that differ between scenarios, but still coming back with “everything continues as in A,” Atwood brings up an interesting point: it’s not the destination that matters it’s all the same for everyone it’s the journey.
In fact, after presenting all of her mock scenarios for the characters, Atwood abruptly changes tone to tell the reader an important fact: “The only authentic ending is the one presented here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” After all, at the end of every person’s life, regardless of how he or she lived it or what he or she experienced, they will encounter death. Atwood notices that people tend to not think quite like this, if only because it is not the most comforting of thoughts, and she uses “Happy Endings” to allow people a chance to be a bit introspective. “So much for endings.
Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.” Such is true for writing; such is true for life. With her unconventional structure, caricatures for characters, and sometimes-sarcastic tone, Atwood manages to convey one of the most important concepts about life of all. Do not let life become “a what and a what and a what.” Learn to favor the stretch between beginning and end, and then, perhaps, you can make your own happy ending.