Commentary by Karen Bernardo
“Happy Endings” is one of Margaret Atwood’s most frequently-anthologized stories because it is so unusual. In form, it isn’t so much a story as an instruction manual on how to write one. In content, it is a powerful observation on life.
The story is broken up into six possible life scenarios plus some concluding remarks. In scenario A, John meets Mary and they have a perfect life, living together devotedly until they die.
In scenario B, John sleeps with Mary, whom he doesn’t love; he treats her abysmally, she commits suicide, and he marries Madge, whom he does love, and “everything continues as in A.”
In scenario C, Mary sleeps with John, who is married to Madge, who has become boring. Mary only sleeps with John because she pities him, and she is really in love with James, who rides a motorcycle. John discovers Mary and James in bed together and shoots them before turning the gun on himself. Madge goes on to marry a nice man named Fred, and we continue as in A.
In scenario D, Fred and Madge have no interpersonal problems at all, but their house is swept away by a tidal wave. They emerge “wet and dripping and grateful, and continue as in A.”
In scenario E, Fred is found to have heart problems. Madge nurses him until he dies, after which she selflessly devotes herself to volunteer work for the rest of her life. It is in this scenario, incidentally, that Atwood begins to break down this encapsulated version of “fifty ways to write a story.” Maybe it’s not Fred with the heart problems, she suggests; maybe it’s Madge who has cancer. Maybe she’s not kind and understanding; maybe she’s guilty and confused. Or maybe Fred is. Maybe Fred, after Madge’s death, devotes himself to bird watching rather than volunteer work. We are obviously getting the point that none of this really matters.
In scenario F, Atwood hammers this point home. “If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you…. You’ll still end up with A.”
What is the common denominator between all these scenarios? Atwood sums it up in her concluding remarks. “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
“Happy Endings” forces us to question the point of life. Every story, carried to its ultimate logical conclusion, has the same ending, because all lives have the same ending. We may die in the heat of battle; we may die in our sleep. We may die in infancy, in a gang war, in a nursing home. But we’re going to die. The story isn’t in the ending—it’s in what we do on the way there.
“Happy Endings” can be found in the Atwood collection Bluebeard’s Egg, available from Amazon here:
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