Beyond illustrating the problematic dynamics underpinning sexual and romantic relationships, “Happy Endings” is concerned with the nature of storytelling itself. “Happy Endings” details the broad plot arcs of a variety of different stories, poking fun at the traditional structure that underpins so many of them. In doing so, Atwood asserts that the broad strokes of a life—who sleeps with whom, who marries whom, who dies and how—as less interesting than the day to day trials and motivations of characters, or as she puts it, the “How and Why.”
The various iterations of the stories all start with an initial romance, whether explicit or implied. This is the first building block of the plot of all the stories—as Atwood puts it “John and Mary meet. What happens next?” Scenario A, which establishes the default ending of many of the other subsequent scenarios as well, offers a “happy ending” to the initial romance. Atwood argues that the ubiquity of this ending renders it virtually meaningless—it is uninteresting precisely because of its generic character. One could literally swap the names of the characters from other scenarios into it without meaningfully changing any of the broad plot strokes. Scenario B and C interject tragedy into the plot—they are not simply “happy endings.” However, they, too, follow a formulaic pattern, and all ultimately arrive at scenario A. Whether describing a lovelorn heroine or a love triangle with a violent end, these plots rely on the same tropes and stereotypes, rendering them, for Atwood, deeply boring stories.
Marriage is another foundational plot element to all of the stories that Atwood introduces. While the details sometimes differ, marriage is ultimately uninteresting as a plot development because of its sheer inevitability. Marriage is assumed to be an integral part of the “happy ending,” no matter what. Whether in scenario A, where marriage is a happy default, or in any of the other scenarios, where marriage is the goal of the story even if it is never ultimately realized, marriage is seen as the culmination of the romantic plot. Everything after marriage, notwithstanding disaster, is merely denouement. This isn’t just a regressive viewpoint that robs other elements of life of meaning, but, in Atwood’s estimation, it’s simply bad writing. And while all of the characters either succeed in, or tragically long for, marriage, Atwood ultimately describes it as a sterile, uninteresting component of the story. It may be nearly inevitable, and it may provide some measure of happiness, but once one has achieved the goal of marriage, there’s really nothing left to do—only sideshows and irrelevant plot filler. Atwood argues that an emphasis on formulaic plot elements such as marriage and “happy endings” ignores the things that make stories important and original.
In all of the stories, the characters also eventually die. Death is the ultimate trope, the inescapable conclusion, and as such is fundamentally uninteresting. On the other hand, stories that attempt to avoid or subvert death are being dishonest: the plot remains the same no matter how creatively one tries to pretend otherwise. Indeed, Atwood asserts that “the endings are the same however you slice it.” While it might be tempting to play along with other versions of the story, she reminds readers that “they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.” Death is the ultimate ending, and in all of the stories (albeit with some name swapping) the ending is simple: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
Atwood acknowledges that the plots of these stories—and most stories—are formulaic when stripped down to their components: romance, marriage, death, with happy or tragic endings meted out accordingly. For her, what is interesting about stories thus aren’t the components of plot, which are “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” Instead, what is truly unique to stories are the “How and Why”—those elements which add depth and interest to what are, in the end, basic and formulaic stories about human life.
Throughout the story, Atwood often directly addresses her audience, breaking the fourth wall and letting the audience in on the secret of formulaic plots and typical endings. From the start, she plays on the conventions of a “choose your own adventure” type story, encouraging the audience, “If you want a happy ending, try A.” After several more iterations, anticipating a reader’s objections to the formula, she suggests wryly, “If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you.” At the conclusion of the story she reminds readers, “you’ll have to face it,” emphasizing that, no matter how inventive or elaborate, plots are ultimately all the same, a collection of stock parts strung together in different orders with varying effects: romance, marriage, death. What is interesting and important about stories ultimately has nothing to do with the plot. Instead, it rests on the “How and Why,” the details, motivations, and descriptions that are unique to particular characters and stories.
Storytelling Tropes ThemeTracker
Storytelling Tropes Quotes in Happy Endings
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.”
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.