Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”
Children universally grow-up with stories of “Once upon a time.. ” and “Happily ever after.. ” and with the conception that you will meet a partner, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Margaret Atwood challenges this conception in her short story “Happy Endings”. “Happy Endings” is satirical because it mocks the common misconception that love and life conclude perfectly with “Happily ever after”. It is through Atwood’s unusual structure, minimalistic diction and use of dramatic irony that the idea of inexplicable happiness is challenged.
At first glance, “Happy Endings” does not even look like a story; rather it appears to be a set of notes or jumbled rough draft of a story. The story breaks down the walls of author/audience by presenting a “general” story which can be read more liberally by the reader because it forces the reader to get involved. The story within a story makes “Happy Endings” interactive by allowing the reader to choose. Atwood begins with ”If you want a happy ending, try A,” alluding that the ones to follow have more ominous conclusions (1).
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In scenario A, John and Mary die after living a perfectly satisfying and devoted live to each other . The conclusion of A is the most simplistic or blunt as it lacks details and emotion. In the subplots of John and Mary, and then Fred and Madge, the characters are so underdeveloped where they become humorous. Atwood’s mockery of these “Happily Ever after.. ” scenarios highlight the fact that the characters lack in depth because their actions are so dreadfully stereotypical.
The little information given about characters is not done so to enliven plot lines but merely have the reader infer what she actually means . For example, the line “She hope he’ll discover and get her to the hospital in time and repent and they can get married, but this fails and she dies” lacks a plot line and more simply information (2). There is no depth to the line; Atwood just simply states that Mary’s hope failed and she died. The consistency of the lifeless characters placed in different situations highlights Atwood’s reoccurring theme: “John and Mary die”.
Using the characters’ demise as a reoccurring theme is not to be taken in an overly exaggerated morbid sense but instead to reinforce the point that Atwood is trying to mock the uniformity of these classic “love stories”. Infact Atwood remarks on her deficiency of contextual matter:“That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what” (3). Debateably, the best part of Margaret Atwood’s humor is her transparency; she does nothing to hide her true ridicule of the lacking of individuality. Happy Endings” diction in a literary sense is remedial. Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is seemingly simpler to read just as actual text. Atwood’s use of minimalism in “Happy endings” is used to create a certain tone. Minimalist works often include ordinary subject matters, have straightforward narratives, focus on single moods or emotions, and consist of characters who don’t think out loud. Such authors like Atwood force readers to take an active role in the creative process.
Instead of providing pages upon pages of meaningless detail , the author provides a general context and then allows the reader’s imagination to shape the story. For example the first lines of ending A read “John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating challenging. They buy a charming house. ”(1) The choppy and nondetailed beat to Atwood’s writing emphasizes Atwood’s message. Unlike other authors, who use words as a maze to find the meaning, Atwood’s straightforward form reminds again the sarcastic undertones.
She essentially is screaming her disdain to the common “happily ever after” scenario with her cynical perspective: “The only Authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die ”(3). She is states in a simplistic and minimalistic manner what is so obvious to her yet so elusive to the average reader. Margaret Atwood also uses dramatic irony to further highlight the sarcastic and satirical motifs in “ Happy Endings” . Moving away from the oddities of the actual structure of the story and into the “endings”, Atwood provides us with the greater knowledge of each.
With this knowledge of “John and Mary Die” the reader immediately knows the demise of the characters, giving them the knowledge prior to even reading the actual scenarios. In ending B, Mary kills herself over the one-sided love affair she has with John. Initially, she had hoped that John would find her just in the nick of time and they would live happily ever after, and as Atwood puts so simply “this fails to happen and she dies” (2). Again in ending C, but reversing the roles, John shoots himself over a one-sided love with Mary.
These endings in theory seem depressing but by Atwood’s delivery, the reader is able to see past the drama of the words and into ridiculousness of the situations. From the beginning, Atwood informs the reader “if you want a happy ending, try A”(1). The audience is then able to go into the other scenarios knowing that the endings, in fact, will not be happy. It is with this knowledge and the lack of personality of the characters that Atwood deliberately minimizes any attachment to the characters and instead illuminates the foolhardiness of these love stories.
Margaret Atwood’s use of dramatic irony is a way of reiterating mockery of traditional story endings. It is through the stereotypical actions of “killing” ourselves for love, which can be dated back to Romeo and Juliet, that Atwood reveals the idiocy of the drama by stripping all depth and intensity audiences crave from fiction. Looking through perspective of the post- modern era in which Atwood was writing one can reflect even deeper on the sarcastic undertones.
Atwood brings to light the struggles of identity women both in the house and in society during this time by personifying the social conflicts through scenarios which confronted Madge and Mary. Atwood’s sarcasm seems more appropriate when placed in the context of this time of turmoil. The context of the Postmodern Era allows reader to more easily to dissect meaning from Atwood’s the minimalism. Margaret Atwood’s use of satire could further be argued as a threshold for more political criticism and shines light on a more feminist perspective.
Atwood, Margaret. Bluebeard’s Egg: And Other Stories. London: Vintage, 1997. Print.