Through a series of different situations, Margaret Atwood depicts the lives of typical people facing various obstacles in her short story “Happy Endings.” Despite their differences, the stories of each of the characters ultimately end in the same way. In her writing, she points out that everybody dies in the same manner, regardless of their life experiences. Behind the apparent meaning of these seemingly pointless stories lies a more profound meaning.
Love plays a central role in each story, and thus it seems that love is the ultimate goal in life. Love, however, is not the only factor that creates and maintains a relationship. Love has the power to bring people together but can also break them apart. In addition, it can lead to irrational decisions with terrible consequences. In this short story, Margaret Atwood shows the powerful effect that love has on people’s lives.
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At first glance, the short stories in “Happy Endings” have a standard connection: all the characters die. However after a more detailed examination of the stories, it becomes evident that each individual is striving to find love. Though love is a universal goal, each person’s criteria for a meaningful, fulfilling and loving relationship varies. This is demonstrated by the different situations in which the characters find themselves. The conventional, stereotypical, and almost clichï¿½ demonstration of love can be seen in stories A & D, where the characters simply “fall in love and get married”.
Love is portrayed as effortless and is a natural, rewarding, and mutual experience for both individuals involved. John & Mary, as well as Fred & Madge, love each other and remain committed to each other for the duration of their lives without encountering even the slightest obstacle. Story D presents a similar, perfect situation of love in which understanding is key. The outside, uncontrollable force of poor health, however, destroys the couple’s ideal relationship. In Story C, John’s conception of love is centred around maintaining his vigour and youth. Though he is married to Madge, he finds personal satisfaction and stimulation in being with the younger Mary.
It reassures him that though he is ageing, he still possesses a certain charm and is able to provide sexual fulfillment. John is content with balancing two relationships until jealousy consumes him and provokes him to kill both Mary and her lover, as well as himself. These examples effectively show contrasts in the criteria for love, which is each character’s ultimate goal. It can be observed in this story that love is mighty, so much so that it can drastically alter lives. However, love can also lead to irrational decisions with horrific consequences. Atwood uses two specific examples in “Happy Endings” to confirm this notion.
Story B presents the character Mary, a woman madly in love with John. John, however, feels no emotion towards Mary but rather “uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind. (Atwood)” Mary loves John so much that she has sex with him twice a week, even though she does not enjoy the act. “She acts as if she’s dying for [sex] every time, not because she likes sex exactly.” She does this with the hopes that John will eventually depend on her, and in turn, possibly fall in love with her. Her love for John is so powerful that it prevents her from fully realizing and accepting the fact that John feels nothing about her.
She finally realizes that he does not care about he “complains about the food… Mary is hurt.” She soon learns that “her friends … [saw] him in a restaurant with another woman” and is deeply bothered by this since “John [had] never taken Mary to a restaurant.” In a final attempt to persuade John to love her, she leaves John a note and overdoses on sleeping pills and aspirins, waiting for him to rescue her, which does not happen. This powerful, moving example of violent suicide effectively and disturbingly illustrates the destructive power of love.
Story C concerns the married John who falls in love with his younger co-worker Mary. John has been married to his wife Madge for several years and has two children. John, who is becoming increasingly insecure about his age, finds a certain security and morale boost in having sex with Mary. Mary, however, does not love John and pursues the younger, more adventurous James. One day John walks in on Mary and James and is shocked and shattered. John loved Mary so much that he could not fathom that she would cheat on him, despite the fact that he himself was being unfaithful.
Instead of ending his relationship with Mary and continuing his life with Madge, he purchases a gun and kills Mary, James and himself. It is evident that love played an essential role in the irrational decision he made. If he had not loved Mary so much, he would not have been so profoundly shaken by Mary’s relationship with James. John was so upset by their relationship that selfishness consumed him: he did not consider his family when murdering and committing suicide. His own needs became his priority. Love caused his logic and sensibility to fail him and provoked him to commit monstrous acts that destroyed many lives.
Through analysis of “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood, it can be concluded that one of her many intended lessons was to show the value and the powerful effects of love. Atwood successfully proved this lesson by using powerful examples of both successful and disastrous relationships to illustrate the positive and negative effects of love. Atwood truly demonstrated what it is like to follow your heart.
- Atwood, Margaret. Happy Endings.