When It Happens


Margaret Atwood

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When It Happens Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Margaret Atwood's When It Happens. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood spent much of her childhood in the great outdoors. Her father was an entomologist and much of her early life was shaped by her father’s research. She did not attend school full-time until 12 years of age; however, she started writing fiction and poetry when she was as young as 6 years old. Atwood decided to make writing her profession at age 16 and soon after she attended the University of Toronto. Here she published several poems and articles before eventually graduating with an English degree. Afterwards, Atwood attended Harvard University where she attained her master’s degree and began a doctoral dissertation, although she never finished it. Instead, she continued writing and soon became one of the most prolific authors of her generation. After publishing several volumes of poetry, Atwood released her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969. This novel helped establish Atwood’s reputation, which she solidified over the next two decades. In particular, her short story collection Dancing Girls and her novel The Handmaid’s Tale won her much praise from critics. The Handmaid’s Tale has since become Atwood’s most famous book as well as her most controversial. Throughout her life, Atwood has remained outspoken on political issues, particularly those concerning women and the environment. It is difficult to make a short list of Atwood’s literary achievements, but along with those already mentioned, she also wrote the critically acclaimed novels The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Testaments (2019).
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Historical Context of When It Happens

There are two historical events mentioned in “When It Happens” which make a clear impact on Mrs. Burridge. First, there is The Great Depression, which occurred between 1929-1939. Mrs. Burridge’s character grew up during this time period and many of her behaviors reflect those of people who lived through it. The Great Depression was brought about by a stock market crash that caused many important institutions to fail, resulting in widespread poverty and food shortages. Jobs became difficult, if not impossible, to find. Because of this, many people who survived The Great Depression no longer trusted banks or the stock market. They often made themselves as self-sustainable as possible to shield themselves from similar future events. Likewise, those who survived World War II sometimes became skeptical of the media because of the propaganda it produced during the war. Mrs. Burridge explicitly acknowledges that she is one of those people and does not trust anything the news tells her. The second important historical event, not mentioned in the story but serving as its backdrop, is the Cold War. The Cold War was centered around a nuclear weapons standoff between antagonistic national governments—primarily Western and capitalist versus Eastern and communist—and during its long duration (1947-1991), there was much anxiety around the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Mrs. Burridge’s thoughts about explosions and smoke on the horizon echo common fears that existed during the time this story was written. 

Other Books Related to When It Happens

Margaret Atwood is best known for writing novels and short stories that fall under the genre of dystopian fiction. Although the dystopia in “When It Happens” is only imagined, the story worlds of Atwood’s later works feature actual dystopias. Atwood’s most famous dystopian novels are The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, both of which are set in the fictional Republic of Gilead. Atwood’s dystopias are part of a tradition which includes George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, along with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. These influences—which fall under the category of speculative fiction—become clearer in her later work, but they are also present in “When It Happens.” More recent examples of dystopian fiction include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2016), and Atwood’s own Oryx and Crake (2003).
Key Facts about When It Happens
  • Full Title: When It Happens
  • When Written: 1977
  • Where Written: Ontario, Canada
  • When Published: 1977
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Short Story, Realism, Dystopian Fiction
  • Setting: A farm in an unspecified location
  • Climax: Mrs. Burridge imagines an apocalyptic scenario where she is pointing a gun at two threatening men.
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for When It Happens

Dancing Girls. “When It Happens” was originally published as part of Atwood’s first short story collection titled Dancing Girls.

The Booker Prize. Margaret Atwood is one of only five authors to win the Booker Prize twice. Her first win came in 2000 for the novel The Blind Assassin and the second came in 2019 for The Testaments.