The first three sentences of “Happy Endings”:
“John and Mary meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A”
Readers, I did not read A. This essay is on the secrets, lies, and mythologies between the sexes and on what makes up the “good stuff” of writing.
Happy endings don’t make good stories. If life was a story, I’d want a good story, not a plain one, and a story in which all goes well isn’t any good, and quite short, to be frank. When I finally read “Ending A”, Atwood gathered all sources of happiness together into a basket–love, marriage, sex, great friends, great jobs, vacation, kids with help, retirement, and stimulating hobbies—and it wasn’t enough. It isn’t a story you’d read or a movie you’d watch, so how can that be considered a life worth living?
Atwood gives us six alternatives as endings: A is the “perfect” ending. in B, Mary commits suicide from how selfish John is; the tipping point: she wished John took her to a restaurant but took Made instead. So she ingested a heap of pills and prayed John would come to her rescue (he did not, readers).
In C, Madge is his wife. Mary is young and in love with James who is unwilling to commit. When John finds them having sex he shoots them, then himself, killing the three of them. C is not B but Atwood leaves room for ambiguity. Meaning, the option to combine C and B makes for an interesting story, though we can’t ascertain they were meant to be combined.
For the first time however, the readers feel duped; they’ve been lied to about Mary, about John …..about everything!? A creeping doubt enters the reader “Wait a second, what do I really know of Mary?” Mary seemed so weak and desperate: “after that [John] falls asleep while she does the dishses so he won’t think she’s untidy…and puts on fresh lipstic so she’ll look good when he wakes up, but when he wakes up he doesn’t even notice…”but in C, Mary loves James, his records and his motorcycle: a symbol of freedom. Atwood narrates: “freedom isn’t the same for girls, so she spends Thursday evenings with John,” (whom she thinks is old, dull, and balding). John insists he can’t leave Madge, but Mary doesn’t care.
In all likelihood, Atwood’s ending C has nothing to do with B but then why use the same name and idea, “Madge”? In B, Madge is the “other” woman but in C, it is Mary. Does Madge know? John loves Mary but in B, he doesn’t. Or doesn’t he and we simply don’t get privy to his thoughts like C. Is C and B just a tragedy of miscommunication? C is male; B is female.
No. It is all a myth. Atwood’s critic, Onley, claims that Atwood “mythologizes” dicotomous relationships and enforces the “sexual ‘polarities’ inherent in the myths of romantic love, nuclear marriage, the machismo male, and the feminine woman.” Atwood meta-physically casts doubt on what we actually know a bout Mary and John (as if these names weren’t anonymous enough). What do we actually know about what either sex perceives or desires and to what extent is that determined by social expectations of their natures?
Endings D&E are simpler: Mary and John are torn apart by natural forces like a tsunami or cancer. F starts as an espionage tale but doesn’t get far because Atwood briefly mentions briefly the dilemma of Canadian identity and then trails off into the craft of writing. She laments that it is impossible to create a happy ending. It is impossible to remedy the secrets. The only truth, the only thing we know for sure, is that Mary and John die. “So much for happy endings. Beginnings are always more fun.” Are they?
What’s exciting about John and Mary meeting? Maybe what is exciting is that hope and dream of anything, something, please, meaningful into my life, I just need something to happen to me and yet…it never is a happy ending. Beginnings are only beginnings to goodbye.
Atwood closes the story by telling the reader that (like Anderson) plot—“the what”—is not the heart, it is the “how” and the “why.” I’ll add on to say that it’s not the “how” or “why” but “how much.”
Read here for the full text of “Happy Endings”