Happy Endings

by

Margaret Atwood

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Themes and Colors
Sex and Gender Theme Icon
Relationships and Marriage Theme Icon
Storytelling Tropes Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Happy Endings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Mortality Theme Icon

Throughout “Happy Endings,” the various romantic scenarios and plot features the story describes all end in death. In all of the archetypal plot elements she caricatures, Atwood emphasizes that death and loss are a fundamental part of any story. While marriage may be an ending of a sort, of the “lived happily ever after” variety, it’s never the true ending: death is the ultimate conclusion of any story, and there’s no use pretending otherwise. Accepting and moving beyond this is essential for good storytelling, but, on a more existential level, is also presented as a prescription for living a more meaningful life.

In each of the scenarios that Atwood describes, the ultimate ending is death. While the plots may conventionally lead up to marriage, infidelity, disaster, or other interpersonal conflicts, Atwood illustrates the ways in which these endings are all false, premature endings if they do not include death. In scenario A and the other scenarios that eventually default to this ending, the story concludes with a good death, at the end of a long, fulfilling life. Atwood writes that “eventually they die. This is the end of the story.” This death is the ultimate conclusion of the “happy ending” scenario, illustrating the ways in which even stories that ostensibly triumph over tragedy cannot escape death. This underscores the story’s broader focus on the unavoidability of mortality.

In other scenarios, a tragic death comes earlier in the story. In scenario B, for instance, Mary commits suicide after her lackluster lover, John, leaves her for another woman. Similarly, in scenario C, all of the characters meet tragic ends, illustrating the central place that death has in all stories. Even in stories with added, sometimes elaborate, details, death remains the final conclusion. Whether characters face heart disease, cancer, natural disasters, or a variety of other deadly ailments, Atwood suggests that these elements can be inserted into the story with little to no change in the overall plot. Death always has the potential to profoundly disrupt the stability of a “happy ending.” Adding in elements of a thriller doesn’t work either: “If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you.” While you might end up with a more superficially interesting story, the plot points are all the same, and death remains inevitable and inescapable.

By the conclusion of the story, Atwood is firm in her insistence that “the only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” As she writes, “so much for endings.” At the same time, however, she indicates that death, while so ordinary and inescapable as to become banal, can be an important factor in stories insofar as it illustrates the “How and Why.”

On the face of it, death is ubiquitous and inescapably human. As such, it can inform and motivate characters in interesting ways. What makes a story worth reading isn’t what happens, but how and why it happens. That’s why Atwood emphasizes that, throughout any story, it’s no use to focus on the inevitable end, whether that means the false ending of marriage or the ultimate ending of death itself. Instead, stories, and life itself, are made meaningful by the characters within them; the bones of the story in the form of plot are less important than the skin and muscle, the organs and scars. By emphasizing that death is the final act of all stories, Atwood reveals certain plot elements to be universal, interchangeable, and without meaning. Thus, she argues that what makes narratives meaningful and significant are the “How and Why”: the peculiarities, motivations, and desires of characters.

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Mortality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Mortality appears in each chapter of Happy Endings. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Mortality Quotes in Happy Endings

Below you will find the important quotes in Happy Endings related to the theme of Mortality.
Happy Endings Quotes

Yes, but Fred has a bad heart. The rest of the story is about how kind and understanding they both are until Fred dies. Then Madge devotes herself to charity work until the end of A. If you like, it can be “Madge,” “cancer,” “guilty and confused,” and “bird watching.”

Related Characters: Madge, Fred
Page Number: 68
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: