Happy Endings Summary

Margaret Atwood

Happy Endings

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Happy Endings Summary

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It is hard at first read to ascertain whether Margaret Atwood’s story Happy Endings is a story at all. It is, rather, a performance of metafiction. Metafiction is an act of writing that calls attention to the fact that it is a piece of writing. Think of when a character on a TV show turns away from the action and addresses the audience, playfully or insightfully breaking the illusion that it is anything but a show. Happy Endings is the literary equivalent. It masquerades as a story that is actually an essay about what it means to write a story at all. If that sounds confusing, it’s actually painfully simple, which is the point.

Atwood uses a structure of six brief plots involving a couple named Mary and John. A brief breakdown of each plot will be illuminating for this discussion because a brief breakdown is barely longer than the plots themselves. Each plot begins in the same way, with John and Mary meeting. For instance, in “A,” John and Mary meet, have good lives, rich hobbies, remain deeply in love, fulfill each other emotionally and successfully, and then, “Eventually they die.”

In Plot B, John is a jerk who mistreats Mary. He uses her primarily for an ego boost and physical gratification. His callous disregard and selfish behavior lead her to commit suicide. He marries another woman and they then live out scenario A.

Plot C involves John as an older man who, while married to a woman named Madge, trysts with a much younger version of Mary. She finds him entertaining at times but sleeps with him largely out of pity. A younger heartthrob named James, who owns a motorcycle and is “free.” John finds the two young lovers in bed and shoots them both before taking his own life. Madge eventually marries again and picks up in scenario A.

In plot D, a tidal wave washes away Fred and Madge’s house. There is no hint of any other drama. Indeed, the scenario begins with the words, “Fred and Madge have no problems.” The entire plot is concerned with the tidal wave’s origin and how the couple deals with the aftermath. Once all is settled, they return to scenario A and continue as with every other iteration.

The plot E version of Fred has cancer. The story is about how well they treat each other until Fred dies. Plot E is where Atwood begins to, as it were, turn away from the page to address the reader directly, as if this were no story at all, but a tutorial for aspiring writers. She suggests that Madge could be the one who had cancer, stating: “If you like, it can be “Madge,” “cancer,” “guilty and confused,” and “bird watching.” Who is that aside for if not for someone reading Happy Endings as a tutorial for the act of writing?

Finally, in plot F, Atwood essentially says that none of these details truly matter, because all stories begin with people meeting. And in the case of John and Mary, no matter what they might wish for themselves and each other, their story can ultimately only have one ending: “John and Mary die.” What is the reader to make of this?  Is this bleak gallows humor? Is it meant as a teaching device? Is it meant to be depressing, or is there something liberating about the knowledge that, because the final fate is inescapable, there is no point in dwelling on it, but rather, everything that happens in between birth and death?

Happy Endings reduces every story—and by extension, every life, since every life is a story—to a mere sequence of events that all have the same end. However, it also suggests that, once a story (or life) moves beyond the inevitable fun of the beginning, it is the middle of the tale that offers the most promise. “True connoisseurs,” as she puts it, “however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

Atwood’s, “story,” then, is about prompting the reader to ask two questions:

  1. In light of Happy Endings, what would ever possess someone to tell a story at all?
  1. By extension, what’s the point in living if the result is always the same? Does life have any meaning whatsoever?

Each reader will have to answer the question about their own lives and what they view as meaningful, but in terms of the infinite directions in which a writer can take any basic plot–especially in the middle, which is where the action lies–Happy Endings is a love letter to the fluidity of storytelling and the vast possibilities that can be summoned every time a writer picks up a pen or turns on a computer. It has also been a critical smash and is one of Atwood’s most heavily anthologized stories, making frequent appearances in the curriculums of writing classes.