Throughout the story, the character arcs of John, Mary, and others are all described in relation to one another, most often in terms of romance and eventual marriage. Atwood highlights the way in which these events function less as interesting narrative developments and more as necessary fulcrums in the plot, moving the story along inexorably toward its ending. Once marriage happens, the story’s usually over—barring plot-worthy tragedies like natural disaster or disease—and the characters are neatly fitted into place, so similar in their endings that they can be slotted directly into any other story where “everything continues as in A, but under different names.” Marriage is always the ultimate conclusion, no matter what—an “ending” that Atwood critiques as superficial and formulaic, and which reduces the meaningful aspects of the characters’ lives to a singular focus.
Scenario A, the first narrative presented in the story and the one to which all other narratives eventually default, concludes with a static marriage, one in which all interesting or significant events have already occurred in the characters’ lives. In this scenario, John and Mary have a “happy ending” consisting of jobs, children, a house, friends, hobbies, and financial prosperity. Having reached the end of their story, John and Mary get to live a happy life—one that is expected and unchanging. While Atwood doesn’t condemn happiness as the ultimate goal, she’s quick to poke fun at the cookie-cutter elements of such an ending.
While the other scenarios may have more twists and turns, they eventually end up at scenario A: a man and a woman fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Whether this means John and Madge in scenario B after Mary has killed herself, Fred and Madge in scenario C after John has committed a murder-suicide, or any of the other iterations is irrelevant. In each of the scenarios, then, Atwood lays bare the empty goal of the “happy ending” of marriage, suggesting that marriage as an end-point is an artificial, perhaps even harmful construction.
In other scenarios throughout the story, Atwood complicates the idea of marriage itself as a “happy ending” by introducing elements such as infidelity, jealousy, and illness. In these scenarios, while the story as a whole ends up at A, various characters must suffer unhappy endings before the story can get there. In scenario B, a lovelorn Mary pines after John even though he is ultimately uninterested in her. Here, as in scenario A, the characters are ultimately defined by their romantic relationships with one another, even when they don’t eventually result in marriage. For Mary, the defining element of her character arc is her relationship with John (or lack thereof). Mary commits suicide precisely because she has been denied the traditional “happy ending” of romance and marriage, illustrating the ways in which harmful ideas about what constitutes a happy and fulfilling life can have a negative effect.
In scenario C, Mary is in a similar situation, in love with James, who is often both emotionally and physically unavailable (“away on his motorcycle, being free”). Mary bides her time by engaging in a relationship with John, who is older and married on this scenario, although she does not love him. While in some respects Mary complicates the tropes present in the two preceding iterations of the story, she is still ultimately defined by her romantic relationships. Although, in the end, she does not get a “happy ending,” the entire arc of her story is still based on her romantic relationships with men. Even when marriage, and romantic relationships in general, are shown to be unhealthy and unhappy, they are still positioned as the ultimate goal of both a story and a life.
In further iterations of the story, Atwood illustrates the ways in which, no matter how one attempts to complicate the plot, it eventually defaults back into the same template of romance and marriage. In scenario D, after Fred and Madge get married, they are threatened by a tsunami, and “the rest of the story is about what caused the tidal wave and how they escape from it.” Despite this detour, however, at the end of the story they “they clasp each other, wet and dripping and grateful, and continue as in A.” Fred and Madge are still characterized exclusively by their relationships to one another. Even tossing in wildly different elements, such as spies, ultimately does nothing to change this. While there might be more filler—“a lustful brawling saga of passionate involvement”—in the end the characters yet again default to marriage as the defining element and goal of their lives.
Throughout the story, Atwood illustrates the ways in which conventional storylines ultimately define their characters by their relationships with others. At least in terms of plot, most stories are conventional in their relationship dynamics, and rely on romance and marriage to the point that characters are often interchangeable with one another. Atwood argues that, contrary to traditional belief and established plot structures, marriage is a false ending, one that simplifies characters’ goals and motivations and ignores the possibilities of other endings, happy or otherwise.
Relationships and Marriage ThemeTracker
Relationships and Marriage Quotes in Happy Endings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favour the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.