Analysis of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings"

Six Versions Provide Unique Perspectives

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"Happy Endings" by Canadian author Margaret Atwood is an example of metafiction. That is, it's a story that comments on the conventions of storytelling and draws attention to itself as a story. At approximately 1,300 words, it's also an example of flash fiction. "Happy Endings" was first published in 1983, two years before Atwood's iconic "The Handmaid's Tale."

The story is actually six stories in one. Atwood begins by introducing the two main characters, John and Mary, and then offers six different versions—labeled A through F—of who they are and what might happen to them.

Version A

Version A is the one Atwood refers to as the "happy ending." In this version, everything goes well, the characters have wonderful lives, and nothing unexpected happens.

Atwood manages to make version A boring to the point of comedy. For example, she uses the phrase "stimulating and challenging" three times—once to describe John and Mary's jobs, once to describe their sex life, and once to describe the hobbies they take up in retirement.

The phrase "stimulating and challenging," of course, neither stimulates nor challenges readers, who remain uninvested. John and Mary are entirely undeveloped as characters. They're like stick figures that move methodically through the milestones of an ordinary, happy life, but we know nothing about them. Indeed, they may be happy, but their happiness seems to have nothing to do with the reader, who is alienated by lukewarm, uninformative observations, like that John and Mary go on "fun vacations" and have children who "turn out well."

Version B

Version B is considerably messier than A. Though Mary loves John, John "merely uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind."

The character development in B—while a bit painful to witness—is much deeper than in A. After John eats the dinner Mary cooked, has sex with her and falls asleep, she stays awake to wash the dishes and put on fresh lipstick so that he'll think well of her. There is nothing inherently interesting about washing dishes—it's Mary's reason for washing them, at that particular time and under those circumstances, that is interesting.

In B, unlike in A, we are also told what one of the characters (Mary) is thinking, so we learn what motivates her and what she wants. Atwood writes:

"Inside John, she thinks, is another John, who is much nicer. This other John will emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, a Jack from a box, a pit from a prune, if the first John is only squeezed enough."

You can also see from this passage that the language in version B is more interesting than in A. Atwood's use of the string of cliches emphasizes the depth of both Mary's hope and her delusion.

In B, Atwood also starts using second person to draw the reader's attention toward certain details. For instance, she mentions that "you'll notice that he doesn't even consider her worth the price of a dinner out." And when Mary stages a suicide attempt with sleeping pills and sherry to get John's attention, Atwood writes:

"You can see what kind of a woman she is by the fact that it's not even whiskey."

The use of second person is particularly interesting because it draws the reader into the act of interpreting a story. That is, second person is used to point out how the details of a story add up to help us understand the characters.

Version C

In C, John is "an older man" who falls in love with Mary, 22. She doesn't love him, but she sleeps with him because she "feels sorry for him because he's worried about his hair falling out." Mary really loves James, also 22, who has "a motorcycle and a fabulous record collection."

It soon becomes clear that John is having an affair with Mary precisely to escape the "stimulating and challenging" life of Version A, which he is living with a wife named Madge. In short, Mary is his mid-life crisis.

It turns out that the barebones outline of the "happy ending" of version A has left a lot unsaid. There's no end to the complications that can be intertwined with the milestones of getting married, buying a house, having children, and everything else in A. In fact, after John, Mary, and James are all dead, Madge marries Fred and continues as in A.

Version D

In this version, Fred and Madge get along well and have a lovely life. But their house is destroyed by a tidal wave and thousands are killed. Fred and Madge survive and live as the characters in A.

Version E

Version E is fraught with complications—if not a tidal wave, then a "bad heart." Fred dies, and Madge dedicates herself to charity work. As Atwood writes:

"If you like, it can be 'Madge,' 'cancer,' 'guilty and confused,' and 'bird watching.'"

It doesn't matter whether it's Fred's bad heart or Madge's cancer, or whether the spouses are "kind and understanding" or "guilty and confused." Something always interrupts the smooth trajectory of A.

Version F

Every version of the story loops back, at some point, to version A—the "happy ending." As Atwood explains, no matter what the details are, "[y]ou'll still end up with A." Here, her use of second person reaches its peak. She's led the reader through a series of attempts to try to imagine a variety of stories, and she's made it seem within reach—as if a reader really could choose B or C and get something different from A. But in F, she finally explains directly that even if we went through the whole alphabet and beyond, we'd still end up with A.

On a metaphorical level, version A doesn't necessarily have to entail marriage, kids, and real estate. It really could stand in for any trajectory that a character might be trying to follow. But they all end the same way: "John and Mary die." Real stories lie in what Atwood calls the "How and Why"—the motivations, the thoughts, the desires, and the way the characters respond to the inevitable interruptions to A.

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Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Sustana, Catherine. (2020, August 26). Analysis of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings". Retrieved from Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings"." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).