Analysis of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”

Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” represents a unique literary work, as it raises multiple issues and challenges numerous standards and writing rules in just a few paragraphs. The author admits that in the beginning, she did not know what kind of story she was writing. Moreover, readers can only guess what the talented Canadian writer wanted to manifest. Her expertise allowed her to look at the Romance genre from a different angle and provide a sarcastic, exaggerated perception of a typical plot. Nevertheless, the brief description of different love stories provides insight into the author’s perception of love, family, and success.

The plot is divided into six stories, which are intervened, although they tell about different people. To underpin that there is just a set number of plots which writers tend to choose, Atwood simply gives them labels from A to F. Although all the characters have distinct backgrounds, their individuality is undermined by the way they are described in each plot. Atwood mocks writers working in the Romance genre by showing them that their stories often lack any details which do not directly describe the actions. The majority of the plots of contemporary writers tend to focus on actions and their consequences. Most characters usually act stereotypically according to their social status, age, background, and the environment. Atwood points out that many romantic stories generally center solely around the decisions the characters make.

There are several characters with the same names in the plots. For instance, Mary is just a happy married woman with a successful career in A and a pathetic young girl in B. John is a young man in B and a married man in his forties in C. Atwood intentionally gives all the characters in every plot the same names to show that only the initial environment and backgrounds can make a difference in a typical love story. The stereotypes which flood romantic stories are not sometimes vivid due to the author’s talent to describe the setting and feelings. Nevertheless, great writers who possess extensive knowledge of literary techniques (like Atwood) give readers an insight into the mass production of romantic stories meant to be popular among a general audience.

The author provides the proper background of each character and the setting. However, she deliberately omits details, which are in charge of the emotional wave. Thus, readers realize that apart from emotions, they are often left without any other experience or knowledge. Atwood strongly suggests that writers and readers focus on “How and Why” alongside “a what and a what” (LLC Books 15). The characters and the plots in Atwood’s story represent only a blank canvas, which is meant to be filled not only with emotions but with experiences, decision-making, as well as phycological challenges.

In Atwood’s “Happy Endings”, the narrator seems to lack any emotional connection with the characters. The use of third-person narrative and the language Atwood chooses further distance the narrator from the characters’ lives. The author deliberately undermines the importance of characters’ decisions and makes it look like all of them are already predetermined by the situation described in the plot. Moreover, it may seem that six plots in just one short story are too much. Nevertheless, it is vivid that Atwood wants to prove that these are the only plots that one may have encountered while reading numerous romantic stories. For instance, it seems like there is no other option for a particular character in a particular situation. Clichés in Hollywood movies are much talked about, and a general audience quickly realizes that they have already seen certain episodes dozens of times before. However, literary works are not usually subject to such scrutiny. That is why Atwood’s short story cunningly mocks writers who are obsessed with the commercial success of their books and do not hesitate to use trite plots for their love stories.

Atwood consistently uses second-person narrative alongside third-person narrative to emphasize the importance of the mainstream A ending. She makes a reference to plot A in all other plots. She reminds the authors and the readers that ultimately, there is only one reasonable happy ending in a love story: “John and Mary die”. All people come to this world at some point and die. Therefore, it is crucial to fill the years in between with reasoning and bright events.

Moreover, solely describing a happy family life makes reading boring. Atwood consistently uses a pair of repeated phrases to denote that everything is fine. Everything in the ideal plot A is “challenging”, “worthwhile” and “stimulating”. The author intentionally uses the same words to show that they do not provide readers with any sophisticated knowledge and do not even give them hints on creating a proper atmosphere in a family. Leo Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina by claiming: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (3). It is difficult to find arguments against this statement. Atwood shows that there is only one way in which one can describe the state of real happiness in a family. It turns out that the recipe for happy family life is simple. Thus, any author’s main task while writing in the Romance genre is to provide a new sophisticated story of two people struggling during their pursuit of happiness and even making mistakes on their long journey.

Margaret Atwood is known for her contribution to the development of Canadian identity. Ilić argues that Canadian literature essentially relies on the quest for an identity which is distinctly different from the American, English, or French identity (171). Ilić also claims that some symbols in Canadian literature hinder the quest for identity and result in the victimhood of literary figures. It is not surprising that Margaret Atwood clearly states that survival and the concept of victor/victim relationship are key elements in great Canadian literary works. Canadian colonial past, enormous territories, wilderness and climate all contribute to such perception. Atwood’s works emphasize the struggle for survival and the pursuit of happiness, and the author expects to see them more often in literature in people’s lives.

The author seems to find the family life described in plot A an ideal option that everyone strives for. However, simply getting there is not enough for a person to feel that his or her life is indeed “worthwhile”, “challenging” and “stimulating”. People actually seek not solely the ultimate state of calmness and happiness. They need struggle, which makes them feel the amusement of adventure and helps them realize the value of happy family life. This idea should be mirrored in the stories meant to teach people the art of love and domesticity.

Works Cited

Ilić, Biljana R. Vlašković. “Identity and Victimhood in Canadian Literature.” Nasle|e, vol. 12 no. 32, 2015, pp. 171–181.

LLC Books. Short Stories by Margaret Atwood: Rape Fantasies, Freeforall, the Resplendent Quetzal, Happy Endings, Unearthing Suite. General Books LLC, 2010.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Translated by Rosamund Batlett, Oxford UP, 2016.

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