29 pages 58 minutes read

Margaret Atwood

Happy Endings

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1983

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: "Happy Endings"

“Happy Endings” is a short story by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. After the story’s trio of opening lines, the narrative is divided into five sections, labeled A-F. The story’s opening lines are: “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A” (43).

The story then moves into Section A, in which John and Mary “fall in love and get married…have jobs they find “stimulating and challenging…buy a house…have two children…who turn out well…retire…[and] die” (43). Atwood concludes this section with the sentence, “This is the end of the story” (43).

Section B—which theoretically could be skipped to straight from the story’s opening three lines—also feature characters named John and Mary, though it is left somewhat ambiguous as to whether or not these two characters are the same John and Mary found in Section A. Mary falls in love with John, but John only uses Mary for sex. When Mary finds out from friends that John is seeing another woman, Madge, Mary commits suicide, though leaves a suicide note for John and hopes he will find her and save her life. Mary dies, and John marries Madge. Atwood concludes this section by stating “everything continues as in [Section] A” (44).

In Section C, we are again introduced to two characters named John and Mary, and, much like Section B, it’s worth noting that a reader could skip from the opening lines of the story straight to Section C, and have Section C be read largely independently of Sections A and B.

Here, John, who is older, falls in love with Mary, who is twenty-two. Mary meets John at work but is in love with James, “who has a motorcycle and a fabulous record collection” (44). James isn’t in love with Mary. John has two children and is married to Madge. One day, James shows up to Mary’s apartment with marijuana, after which John shows up, finds the two lovers in bed together, and kills them, before killing himself.

Madge, now John’s widow, “marries an understanding man named Fred,” though only “after a suitable period of mourning” (44). Atwood concludes the section by saying that “everything continues as in A, but under different names” (44).

Section D focuses on Fred and Madge, who would seem to be the same Fred and Madge mentioned in Section C. The two get along well and own a house but a “one day a giant tidal wave approaches” (44). Real estate values decrease, thousands die, but Fred and Madge survive. Again, Atwood concludes this section by saying that everything “continue[s] as in [Section] A” (45).

Section E, which is only four sentences, offers that Fred has a bad heart and dies, after which Madge “devotes herself to charity work until the end of [Section] A” (45). This section concludes with: “If you like, it can be ‘Madge,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘guilty and confused,’ and ‘bird watching’ (45).

Section F, the story’s last section, begins with Atwood again directly addressing the reader, and offering perhaps the story’s most metafictional content to this point. Atwood then asserts that all endings are the same and that “the only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die” (45).

Atwood closes the story by saying plots, and plot, “are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.” (45).

The citations in this guide refer to the story as it appears in the anthology, The Story and Its Writer, 7th Edition.