By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Happy Endings’ is a short story (or, perhaps more accurately, a piece of metafiction) which was first published in Margaret Atwood’s 1983 collection, Murder in the Dark. The story offers six alternative storylines which feature a relationship between a man and a woman.
Because of its postmodern and metafictional elements, ‘Happy Endings’ requires a few words of analysis to be fully understood. Before we begin, it might be worth summarising the plot (or plots) of the various storylines which Atwood presents to us.
‘Happy Endings’: plot summary
The story is divided into eight sections, the first six of which posit six different storylines. In the first one, labelled ‘A’, John and Mary meet and fall in love and get married. They both have good jobs and buy a nice house, and in time, they have children. When the time comes, they retire, enjoy their hobbies, and die.
In the second storyline, labelled ‘B’, Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t love Mary back. He uses her for sex and she hopes that he will come to love (or at least need) her, in time. He never takes her out to a restaurant and instead comes round to hers and she cooks for him.
When her friends tell her he is cheating on her with another woman named Madge, she takes an overdose, hoping that John will discover her and feel so guilty that he’ll marry her. However, this doesn’t happen and she dies, and John marries Madge.
In the third storyline, ‘C’, John is an older married man who is having an affair with Mary, who is twenty-two. She really likes James, who is the same age as her, but he is too young and free to be tied down to a relationship. She takes a shine to John because he is older and worried about losing his hair, and this evokes pity in her.
John, meanwhile, is married to Madge. When Mary ends up having sex with James, John discovers them both and buys a handgun and shoots them dead, before killing himself. Madge, his widow, subsequently marries a man named Fred.
In ‘D’, Fred and Madge are happy together until a tidal wave approaches their coastal home and they narrowly escape. However, they remain together.
In ‘E’, Fred has a bad heart, and eventually dies; afterwards, Madge devotes herself to charity work. However, the narrator acknowledges that these details can be changed: Madge could be the one who is unwell, and Fred might take up bird-watching (rather than charity work) when she dies.
In the final scenario, ‘F’, the narrator suggests that the story can be made less middle-class by making John a revolutionary and Mary a secret agent who starts a relationship with him in order to spy on him. However, the story will still ultimately come to resemble ‘A’.
‘Happy Endings’ concludes with two brief sections in which the narrator (author? Atwood herself?) observes that the endings of all of these stories are the same, ultimately: John dies and Mary dies. After all, death is the ending that comes to all of us, and therefore to all characters. This is the only true authentic ending.
Having treated endings, the narrator remarks that beginnings are more fun, but mostly people are interested in the middle bits. Plot is, fundamentally, just one thing happening after another. The questions of ‘how’ something happens and ‘why’ it does are more interesting, and require attention.
‘Happy Endings’: analysis
‘Happy Endings’ is an example of metafiction: self-conscious fiction that is itself about fiction. It is, in other words, a story about stories and storytelling. Rather than work at creating a realist picture of John and Mary, the two protagonists of ‘Happy Endings’, so that we immerse ourselves in the story and view them as ‘real’ people, Atwood deliberately distances us from them, keeping them at arm’s length by reminding us that they are nothing more than authorial constructs.
Much of Atwood’s story is about delineating the six different scenarios, each of which involves a relationship between a man and a woman.
But as the story develops, the author breaks in on her characters more and more, ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to remind us that they are mere ciphers and that the things being described do not exist outside of the author’s own head (and the reader’s: Atwood’s fiction, and especially the short pieces contained in Murder in the Dark, are about how we as readers imagine those words on the page and make them come alive, too).
Why does Atwood do this? Partly, one suspects, because she wishes to interrogate both the nature of romantic plots in fiction and readers’ attitudes towards them. It’s a commonplace that happy endings in romantic novels ‘sell’: it gives readers what they want. Boy meets girl, girl falls in love with boy, and after various rocky patches they end up living, in the immortal words, ‘happily ever after’.
Atwood wants to put such plot lines under the microscope, as it were, and subject them to closer scrutiny. By the time we get to the fifth plot, ‘E’, the narrator is happily encouraging us to view the plot details as interchangeable between Fred and Madge, as if they don’t really matter. After all, do they? Perhaps the more important details are, as the closing paragraphs of ‘Happy Endings’ have it, not What but How and Why. Character motivation is more important than what they do or what is done to them.
Of course, as so often in Margaret Atwood’s fiction, there’s a feminist angle to all this. Relationships are not equal in a society where men have things easier than women, and the third of Atwood’s six scenarios, in which Mary is the key player, makes this point plainly.
Freedom, Atwood tells us, isn’t the same for girls as it is for boys, and while James is off on his motorcycle, she is forced by societal expectations to do other things. (It is not that she isn’t free herself – she is, after all, carrying on an affair with a married, older man even though society wouldn’t exactly view that kindly – but her freedoms are of a different kind. A woman motorcycling across America on her own would not feel as safe, for one, as a man doing so.)
In the last analysis, ‘Happy Endings’ is a kind of postmodern story about stories: postmodern because it freely and self-consciously announces itself as metafiction, as being more interested in how stories work than in telling a story itself.
But within the narratives Atwood presents to us, she also addresses some of the inequalities between men and women, and exposes how relationships are rarely a level playing field for the two sexes.