John and Mary meet. In scenario A, they fall in the love and marry, and end up with a “happy ending” consisting of a house with rising real estate value, children, a “stimulating and challenging” sex life, and “stimulating and challenging” occupations and hobbies.
Atwood intentionally plays with the relationship between story and plot, offering up different stock scenarios, characters, and developments, usually consisting of romance and marriage, in order to illustrate the ways in which storytelling tropes are thoughtlessly perpetuated.
In scenario B, Mary is in love with John, but John is not in love with Mary. John and Mary engage in a sexual relationship, but while Mary hopes for more, John is merely using her for his own pleasure. John visits Mary twice a week, and she cooks him dinner, tidies up after him, and has sex with him with the hope that he will come to love her in return.
Mary is upset 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 capable of becoming a good person and worthwhile partner.
While John is clearly a less than ideal partner, Mary clings to the hope of a relationship with him because she is convinced that love and marriage are necessary for a “happy ending,” no matter the cost.
Through her friends, Mary learns that John has been seeing another woman, Madge. Mary is most affronted that John has been taking the other woman out to dinner, as he has never taken her out to dinner and instead constantly relies on her to cook for him. Despondent, Mary plans to commit suicide. While she hopes that John might find her, rush her to the hospital, and confess his love, this does not happen, and Mary dies.
Because Mary is unable to achieve the “happy ending” described in scenario A—marriage, children, etc.—she chooses the only other option she feels is available to her: death. For Mary, this is the ultimate ending, one that Atwood hints is both more final and more honest than the false ending of marriage.
After Mary’s suicide, John marries Madge, the other woman he was seeing. The story then states that everything “continues as in A,” implying that they go on to a happy ending of their own.
Here, Atwood again plays with and satirizes storytelling tropes, insinuating that the endings of stories are often virtually interchangeable, able to be swapped into different scenarios with little to no difference.
In scenario C, Mary is in love with an adventurous young man names James, who is attractive and aloof, with an impressive record collection. While Mary is interested in a relationship with him, James is often away on his motorcycle having adventures, and so Mary engages in a sexual relationship with John, a much older married man.
In this scenario, while both John and James are free to explicitly act on their romantic and sexual desires, Mary is unable to fully pursue her own. Here, Atwood emphasizes the unequal nature of relationships between men and women, arguing that “freedom” is largely the province of men.
Although John is married, engages in a relationship with Mary in order to mitigate his midlife crisis and feel young again. While he emphasizes how important Mary is to him, he reiterates that he cannot leave his wife, as he is committed to her. While Mary enjoys having sex with John, she remains uninterested in him romantically.
While the “happy ending” depicted in scenario A is ostensibly final, here Atwood illustrates the ways in which it is not—at least for men. Instead, John is free to engage in extramarital affairs, illustrating the ways in which a stable marriage is inherently a false ending.
James returns from 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 before committing suicide. His wife, Madge, subsequently marries a man named Fred and proceeds on to the happy ending described in scenario A.
While in scenario B Mary commits suicide out of jealousy and despair, here John enacts his rage upon others, further illustrating the unequal levels of autonomy in romantic and sexual relationships. Despite the tragedy of John’s actions, however, a typical “happy ending” is still available for his wife, Madge, who can subsequently be easily slotted into scenario A under a different name.
In scenario D, Fred and Madge are happily married, but must deal with a tidal wave swamping the town in which they live and nearly killing them. At the conclusion of the scenario, Fred and Madge have survived the calamity and continue on to scenario A.
Even when the scenario attempts to innovate in terms of plot, Atwood demonstrates the way in which all stories eventually end up at the same place. She does this to illustrate the fundamental simplicity and similarity of most stories.
In scenario E, Fred and Madge suffer illnesses such as heart disease or cancer, and the story details the ways in which they deal with this until they die. The narrator implies that it doesn’t matter which one of them is sick, and that the plot details are easily interchangeable. The remaining spouse continues to spend their time as in scenario A.
These further complications to the plot are themselves formulaic, and, furthermore, eventually revert back to the stock ending depicted in A. Here Atwood again illustrates the repetitive similarity between stories, arguing that plot points are all the same, and all eventually end in death.
In scenario F, 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 end up the same.
Even when stretched to the furthest extremes, Atwood illustrates the way in which stories never fundamentally deviate from the same essential tropes, always ultimately ending in romance, marriage, and death.
The narrator emphasizes that no matter what complications are added to the plot, the ending is always the same, namely, death. Any story that does not end in death is dishonest about the true ending.
In the final passages of the story, Atwood makes her critique of plot explicit, focusing on the ways in which all endings that do not include death are essentially lying. She emphasizes that death is the universal final ending.
The narrator indicates that, because they are interchangeable and stereotypical, plots are ultimately the least interesting aspect of a story, particularly since they always end the same. Instead, they argue that what makes a story unique and meaningful is not the “what” but rather the “How and Why.”
Having dissected and displayed the underlying similarity between all plots, Atwood argues that this makes them fundamentally uninteresting components of story. Instead, she argues that characters’ motivations and backgrounds are much more necessary and interesting to stories than mere plot.