In “Happy Endings,” Atwood describes a variety of scenarios involving stock characters she calls John and Mary in order to reflect upon gender and sexuality. Throughout these iterations of character arcs and story stereotypes, Atwood presents sexuality as heavily conditioned by social and gender norms, most often to the detriment of women. In particular, women’s sexuality is often socially dependent upon men, whose needs are put first, over and above women’s. The story’s title itself, “Happy Endings,” obliquely refers to sexual acts, a tongue-in-cheek nod by Atwood that “happy endings,” in sex and real life, are largely the domain of men. Ultimately, Atwood makes the claim that the gendered expectations surrounding sex often result in situations that benefit men and harm women.
In none of the scenarios is sex in and of itself the source of a genuinely happy ending for women. Even in scenario A, which is in some senses a “best-case” scenario, John and Mary’s “stimulating and challenging” sex life is ultimately presented as a minor hobby alongside other parts of their lives such as children, a house, vacations, and friends. Listing sex with the litany of other accomplishments belies its importance and fraught nature. Their jobs and hobbies are also described as “stimulating and challenging,” a phrase that evokes not so much intimacy and passion, but a kind of sterile, paternalistic view of sex as necessary for a “happy ending,” the details of which are unimportant. Thus even when the relationship described is a relatively happy one, the only important thing about sex is, presumably, that they’re having it. While this would be the case for both John and Mary in this situation, later scenarios complicate the supposedly equal (and equally depressing) depiction of sex for each partner—suggesting that while neither is deeply satisfied, women in particular are unable to achieve or hold onto sexual fulfillment.
Indeed, in scenario B, John only uses Mary for sexual gratification, and while Mary doesn’t enjoy sex with John, she consents because she wants John to love and marry her. Here Mary and John’s relationship makes explicit the fact that, for men, sex is about pleasure, while for women, sex is fraught with gendered expectations of self-sacrifice. Atwood is explicit about the one-sided nature of this relationship: John “merely uses [Mary’s] body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind,” and does not reciprocate her care of interest in any fashion. In this scenario, for Mary sex is just a tool, used to get and keep a man who would be otherwise uninterested in her.
When John finds another women he is interested in, Madge, Mary is despondent, and eventually commits suicide, with the thought that maybe John will “discover her and get her to the hospital in time and repent and then they can get married.” Even at the end of her life, then, Mary uses her body as a tool to get a man to love her. While her friends tell Mary that John is “a rat, a pig, a dog,” and the details of the story certainly bear this characterization out, Mary is stuck in a warped view of the world in which John could potentially “emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon.” For Mary, sex is a way in which she might be able to encourage John to change; it is not something she does for her own pleasure or, to echo the story’s title, happy ending.
In scenario C, Atwood goes on to underscore how women, unlike men, are in fact punished when they actively pursue their own sexual gratification. In this scenario Mary is in love with James, but also sleeps with John, now presented as an older man who is cheating on his wife. Here, Atwood complicates the gender dynamic in regards to sex, and there is no “happy ending” even for the men. However, Mary still has to navigate the fraught realm of sex and interpersonal relationships, while for the men it’s simpler and more straightforward, a purer reflection of their own desires and needs.
Because James is unavailable (as Atwood puts it, “away on his motorcycle, being free”), Mary indulges in a sexual relationship with John, although she is not in love with him. Here, the reader sees a distorted reflection of the relationships in scenarios A and B: although John is supposed to be living his “happy ending” as depicted in those stories, in reality he is cheating on his wife with a much younger woman. But John’s infidelity isn’t what invalidates the “happy ending”—male sexual digression seems permissible within the existing framework. It’s only when John finds Mary and James in her apartment, “stoned and entwined,” that his narrative begins to unravel. For John, this is no longer a “happy ending” because his sexual and romantic desires are no longer uncomplicated and fulfilled. For James and Mary, a “happy ending” isn’t possible either—but only because Mary’s infidelity prompts John to take drastic action and kill them all. Throughout the entirety of scenario C, then, Atwood illustrates that the “happy ending” of sexual climax is, throughout the story, largely in reference to male sexual pleasure.
It’s clear that female pleasure isn’t a concern for most of the male protagonists of the story, except as an afterthought, perhaps a necessary component the “stimulating and challenging” aspects of scenario A. The only men who do not get a “happy ending” are those in scenario C: John, because he squanders his already happy life in a jealous rage, and James, because he is the victim of that rage. In none of the iterations of the story do women have the power to deny men a “happy ending” outright. What’s more, they seldom have the ability to meaningfully pursue their own “happy ending.”
Sex and Gender ThemeTracker
Sex and Gender 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.
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.