Analysis of Margaret Atwood’s Happy Endings

An innovative and oft-anthologized story that demonstrates the arbitrariness of any author’s choice of an ending, “Happy Endings” offers six different endings from which the reader may choose. “Happy Endings” was first published in the Canadian collection Murder in the Dark (1983) and then became available in the United States in Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994). Intentionally written in only 1,500 words, the story contains little plot, little character development, and little motivation. Readers, however, should not be deceived: Margaret Atwood is, according to the critic Reingard M. Nischik, “a chronicler of our times, exposing and warning, disturbing and comforting, opening up chasms of meaning as soon as she closes them, and challenging us to question conventions and face up to hitherto unarticulated truths” (159). “Happy Endings” is a story about writing a story, with thoughtful advice to both readers and would-be writers. In this unusual tale she demonstrates why “who and what” are insuff cient; the reader must ask (and the writer must supply) “how and why.” In addition to analyzing the appropriateness of the six endings, the reader might profit from comparing “Happy Endings” to Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” in which the author offers several possibilities of what happens to the babysitter, leaving the decision to the reader’s imagination; and Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film Roshomon, which depicts the rape of a bride and the murder of her husband through various eyewitness accounts; it demonstrates the near-impossibility of arriving at the actual “truth” of the events.

Atwood’s technique differs from that of Coover and Kurosawa, however, in that she fl eshes out nothing: Indeed, the six possible endings to the story of John and Mary are written as a skeletal outline. She opens with the words, “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” (1).

In A, John and Mary live a richly fulfilling life in terms of careers, sex life, children, vacations, and retirement, until they die. In Ending B, however, Mary loves John but he does not return her love, instead using and abusing her in classical doormat fashion. When Mary learns of John’s affair with Madge, she commits suicide, John marries Madge, and we are told to move to Ending A. In Ending C, John is an older man married to Madge and the father of two children. He falls for the 22-year-old Mary, but when he finds her in the arms of James, he shoots all three of them. Madge marries a man named Fred and proceeds to Ending A. In Ending D, Fred and Madge are the sole survivors of a tidal wave, and, despite the loss of their home, they are grateful to have survived the calamity that killed thousands and continue to Ending A.

Ending E follows Fred to his death of a “bad heart.” Madge soldiers on with charity and volunteer work in Ending A, until she dies of cancer—or, if the reader prefers, becomes guilt-ridden or begins bird-watching. Finally, for those who find Endings A through E “too bourgeois,” Atwood suggests making John and Mary spies and revolutionaries. Still, though, they will end up at Ending A because, after all, “this is Canada” (3). The only authentic ending, says Atwood, is this one: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” As the critic Nathalie Cooke points out, “For Atwood, writing is a fascinating but dark art—one where shadows lurk, not only in the subject matter . . . but also in the author’s role as a double being, and in the writing process itself, in which the writer must not only face the darkness, but learn to see in and through it” (19). As Atwood suggests to the readers at the conclusion of “Happy Endings,” that process is achieved by understanding motivation through asking “how” and “why.”

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Nischik, Reingard M. “Margaret Atwood’s Short Stories and Shorter Fictions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, edited by Coral Ann Howells, 145– 160. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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