Happy Endings

by

Margaret Atwood

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John Character Analysis

Like Mary, John is one of the first characters introduced in the story, and serves as a stand-in for a typical male character throughout the various plot iterations. In scenario A, John and Mary succeed in obtaining a “happy ending” consisting of marriage, children, a house, and fulfilling jobs and hobbies. In scenario B, after Mary eventually commits suicide, John still goes on to the ending described in A, only this time with a woman named Madge, who is virtually interchangeable with the version of Mary described in scenario A. Scenario C features an older version of John, still married to Madge but also engaging in an affair with a comparatively much younger version of Mary. In this scenario, when John finds Mary engaged in a relationship with another man, he is overcome with despair and frustration and kills both Mary and her lover James before committing suicide. While John’s ending is not always, strictly speaking, happy, in each of the scenarios John always ultimately has a sense of agency that Mary lacks, illustrating the ways in which men’s freedom when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships greatly outstrips that of women. Even when John has achieved the “happy ending” of marriage with Madge, he still engages in extramarital affairs, an option denied to the various female characters. Ultimately, John is representative of masculine sexual privilege throughout the story.

John Quotes in Happy Endings

The Happy Endings quotes below are all either spoken by John or refer to John. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Virago edition of Happy Endings published in 2001.
Happy Endings Quotes

He doesn’t take off Mary’s clothes, she takes them off herself, she acts as if she’s dying for it every time, not because she likes sex exactly, she doesn’t, but she wants John to think she does because if they do it often enough surely he’ll get used to her, he’ll come to depend on her and they will get married, but John goes out the door with hardly so much as a goodnight and three days later he turns up at six o’clock and they do the whole thing over again.

Related Characters: Mary, John
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary gets run down. Crying is bad for your face, everyone knows that and so does Mary but she can’t stop. People at work notice. Her friends tell her John is a rat, a pig, a dog, he isn’t good enough for her, but she can’t believe it. Inside John, she thinks, is another John, who is much nicer. This other John will emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, a Jack from a box, a pit from a prune, if the first John is only squeezed enough.

Related Characters: Mary, John
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

But James is often away on his motorcycle, being free. Freedom isn’t the same for girls, so in the meantime Mary spends Thursday evenings with John.

In scenario C, the narrator continues to discuss the reasons that Mary has settled for a sexual relationship with the older John when she really wishes she could be with James. This passage again illustrates the uneven playing field when it comes to sexual and romantic relationships between men and women. James is able to go off on adventures and be “free,” implying not only physical freedom but also the freedom for sexual promiscuity and autonomy. On the other hand, since freedom “isn’t the same for girls,” Mary has no such options. Instead, she must settle for what is available to her, in the form of middle-aged, romantically unappealing John. While James and Mary seem to be otherwise of roughly equal age and social status, their relationship is a fundamentally unequal one because it is predicated on such a socially conditioned gender imbalance. Even when Mary attempts to assert her own autonomy, and perhaps correct \this imbalance, by engaging in a sexual relationship with another man, she is nowhere close to achieving the level of freedom and autonomy represented by James and his motorcycle.

Related Characters: Mary, John, James
Related Symbols: James’s Motorcycle
Page Number: 66-67

John tells Mary how important she is to him, but of course he can’t leave his wife because a commitment is a commitment. He goes on about this more than is necessary and Mary finds it boring, but older men can keep it up longer so on the whole she has a fairly good time.

Related Characters: Mary, John, Madge, James
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you. Remember, this is Canada. You’ll still end up with A, though in between you may get a lustful brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times, sort of.

Related Characters: Mary, John
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:

John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

Related Characters: Mary, John
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Happy Endings LitChart as a printable PDF.
Happy Endings PDF

John Character Timeline in Happy Endings

The timeline below shows where the character John appears in Happy Endings. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Happy Endings
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Storytelling Tropes Theme Icon
John and Mary meet. In scenario A, they fall in the love and marry, and end... (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
In scenario B, Mary is in love with John, but John is not in love with Mary. John and Mary engage in a sexual... (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
...with the state of their relationship, prone to crying and worrying. Mary’s friends insist that John is no good for her, but Mary insists that, despite his rough exterior, John is... (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
Through her friends, Mary learns that John has been seeing another woman, Madge. Mary is most affronted that John has been taking... (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Storytelling Tropes Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
After Mary’s suicide, John marries Madge, the other woman he was seeing. The story then states that everything “continues... (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
...away on his motorcycle having adventures, and so Mary engages in a sexual relationship with John, a much older married man. (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Although John is married, engages in a relationship with Mary in order to mitigate his midlife crisis... (full context)
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Storytelling Tropes Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
...one of his adventures and proceeds to get high and have sex with Mary. When John walks in on them, he is overcome with rage and despair, and kills them both... (full context)
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Storytelling Tropes Theme Icon
...the narrator encourages the reader to attempt to add additional plot details such as making John and Mary revolutionaries and spies, but implies that despite this intervention the plot will ultimately... (full context)