When It Happens

by

Margaret Atwood

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When It Happens Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mrs. Burridge stores 12 quarts of green tomato pickles in jars. She knows there is a strike at the factory that makes her jars, so she is happy she has so many left over in her cellar. Mrs. Burridge has lots of green tomatoes because she spent the previous evening picking all she could find after hearing a frost was coming. She makes her husband Frank help her—which she says he likes to do—although she knows she can do the task herself. The news claims that the price of green tomatoes will rise after the frost, but Mrs. Burridge thinks that the stores will reap the benefit, not the growers.
As readers are introduced to Mrs. Burridge, they learn that she is keenly aware of the economic factors at play in her local economy; she knows about a strike at the jar factory and she is aware of how the weather will affect the price of green tomatoes. It’s surprising that she would care about details like this, which suggests that she goes out of her way to pay attention to such things. Additionally, it is clear that Mrs. Burridge likes to feel in control. She claims Frank likes to help her out, although later she will contradict herself.
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Mrs. Burridge feels as though she has grown wealthier, despite the relative uselessness of the green tomatoes. Frank is skeptical that the two of them can eat such a large amount of green tomato pickle, as they live by themselves. Mrs. Burridge believes that Frank will eat them all himself, although she does not say so out loud. She thinks about how Frank eats the pickle constantly and often makes a mess. At one point, the mess bothered Mrs. Burridge, but now it just makes her sad because it makes her think about how their lives together will eventually come to an end.
There is much that goes unsaid between Mrs. Burridge and Frank, as though they have had similar conversations before and don’t think such trivial matters are worth arguing over anymore. Mrs. Burridge also seems to hold back because she does not know how much longer the two of them will be together. The Burridges’ marriage has a sense of comfortable familiarity, but perhaps also stagnation. 
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Mrs. Burridge regularly jokes with Frank about how much he eats. She no longer gets any joy out of doing this, but she feels it is expected of her. In response, Frank tells her “You need a little fun in life.” This back and forth is a common ritual for the two of them and Mrs. Burridge generally ignores Frank and continues to garden and make a lot of pickles. Mrs. Burridge started her garden in 1952 and has made pickles ever since. During that time, she was pregnant with her daughter Sarah, which made gardening difficult. When Mrs. Burridge was young, making your own pickles was a common practice, but it died out after World War II because pickles became available in stores. Mrs. Burridge’s friends don’t understand why she continues to make her own pickles, but she is glad she kept it up because store prices continue to increase.
Mrs. Burridge and Frank have fallen into patterns of behavior that they recognize, but continue to do anyway. This appears to be the only way the two of them still communicate, so it is a necessary ritual to keep up. Instead of speaking with her husband, Mrs. Burridge prefers to tend to and think about her garden, which allows her to be self-sustainable. Like her conversations with Frank, Mrs. Burridge’s gardening is a ritual she has kept up over many years and it remains a source of comfort for her. It is also something she associates with her daughter Sarah and the bringing forth of new life.
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Although Frank brings in more money than ever, Mrs. Burridge feels as though they are becoming poorer. She thinks about selling their farm to someone from the city who wants a weekend getaway, but she “does not have much faith in money.” In addition, she feels like the new owner would not make use of the land, and she does not want to give up her home.
Here, Mrs. Burridge contradicts herself; she is worried about money, yet claims she does not have faith in it. The same can be said of many of Mrs. Burridge’s worries throughout the story, and as the contradictory statements begin to add up, it becomes clear that worrying is a hobby for Mrs. Burridge. Additionally, this is the first of several times Mrs. Burridge will express fear of city people. For her, the city is an example of the unknown, and as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Mrs. Burridge does not know how to cope with the unknown.
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While waiting for her second batch of pickle to simmer, Mrs. Burridge “goes to the back door, opens it and stands with her arms folded across her stomach, looking out.” This is something she does several times per day but does not know why. There is nothing special to look at, but she feels as though one day she will see a fire on the horizon. However, she does not tell anyone about what she is thinking, including Frank. When Frank asks her about what she is doing, she tells a bad lie and says she heard a dog’s bark that she did not recognize.
Searching the horizon is something Mrs. Burridge does when she is bored. Once her pickle is on the stove, she does not know what else to do with herself and so she stares at the horizon and worries. Again, the horizon is an example of the unknown—it is a space she looks at, but it is not one she is familiar with. Mrs. Burridge’s descriptions of what she might see on the horizon bring to mind nuclear warfare, a very real threat at the time this story was written. In addition, this section again highlights the disconnect between Mrs. Burridge and Frank. Although they converse with one another, they do not speak openly and honestly about their inner lives, suggesting that though their marriage is familiar, it’s not truly intimate.
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Frank does not press Mrs. Burridge on her lie any further. She thinks it’s because he does not want to bring up the odd behavior she’s begun to exhibit in her old age. This makes sense to Mrs. Burridge because although Frank is messy, it pains him to hurt someone’s feelings. Mrs. Burridge is annoyed by his “pigheadedness” but ultimately finds him to be “a kind and likable man.” It is difficult for her to admit this to herself because of how often Frank makes her angry.  
Mrs. Burridge likes to make guesses about what Frank is thinking, but she does not appear to know his thoughts any better than he knows hers. Additionally, it is significant that Mrs. Burridge admits to her “odd behavior” because up to now, she has come off as relatively normal. This admission flags Mrs. Burridge as an unreliable figure and changes the tone of the story. Also, Mrs. Burridge’s opinions of Frank suggest that their marriage is not truly happy; the anger she feels toward him overrides any sense of fondness. 
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After the pickles cool, Mrs. Burridge creates labels and then moves the jars down to the cellar. Mrs. Burridge is well-organized and always makes sure each of her preserved foods gets its own spot. Seeing all of the food in the cellar used to make Mrs. Burridge feels safe because she and Frank would be okay if bad weather temporarily cut them off from civilization. However, now Mrs. Burridge worries that some sort of crisis could make her leave her home and she knows she cannot take all of the jars with her. 
Mrs. Burridge’s well-organized cellar is another example of her desire for control. She cannot help it if bad weather comes, but she can make sure she is prepared. However, contradicting her desire for control is her insatiable capacity for worrying. Although she has all the food she could ever need, she is still not satisfied; instead she finds another scenario to worry about, one in which the food is rendered almost useless.
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After placing the pickles in the cellar, Mrs. Burridge goes back up the stairs. In recent years, climbing the stairs has become more difficult for Mrs. Burridge because her knee bothers her from tripping up them previously. Mrs. Burridge repeatedly asks Frank to fix the stairs to avoid subsequent falls, but he has yet to do so. Instead, he tells her she is nagging him whenever she repeats the request. Even though Mrs. Burridge agrees that she might be nagging him, she thinks “but who’s going to do it if he won’t?” There is an emptiness in this question that Mrs. Burridge finds difficult to deal with.
Mrs. Burridge’s age is another source of distress for her. Old age is hindering her ability to rely on herself and her only other option is Frank. However, unlike she claimed previously, Frank apparently does not like to help her. This is deeply troubling to Mrs. Burridge; she spent her entire life relying on two people—one being herself—and soon neither will be a viable option. Although much of Mrs. Burridge’s worrying throughout the story is excessive, this particular concern is legitimate and significant. In fact, it is generally true that Mrs. Burridge’s anxieties can be traced back to reasonable and relatable sources.
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Now back on the first floor of their home, Mrs. Burridge actively resists taking another trip to the back door. However, as an alternative, she goes to the back window where the view is more or less the same. She sees Franks moving to their barn with something that looks like a wrench in his hand. Frank walks gingerly and slightly hunched over, showing his age. Mrs. Burridge wonders how long he’s walked like that and thinks about how he can no longer protect her. Mrs. Burridge knows that this isn’t just true of Frank, but also of other men his age. She believes it is clear by the way they walk that “they’ve lost the power.” Instead, she thinks, “They are all waiting [...] for whatever it is to happen. Whether they realize it or not.”
By not going to the back door, Mrs. Burridge seems to acknowledge that her actions are unhealthy. Of course, moving to the window is no better, but the view she is treated to does anchor her worries about Frank in reality. Indeed, Frank does appear old and soon there will be tasks he can no longer perform. Frank is of a generation of men who fought in World War II, although it is not clear if he is a veteran. Regardless, there is a sadness and a dread Mrs. Burridge feels about this generation losing their “power” to old age. Although Mrs. Burridge will shortly reveal her ideas about what is to “happen,” here it sounds as though she is simply talking about death. Again, although she will soon go in a more surprising direction, her fears about old age and death are universally relatable.
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When Mrs. Burridge goes into town and sees other women, she reads anxiety and fear in their faces. She thinks that, like her, they are worried about their capabilities in a crisis. Mrs. Burridge relates to the fear and so, for the last few weeks, she’s wanted Frank to show her how to handle one of his guns. Frank typically uses his guns for hunting ducks and the groundhogs that ruin their fields. In this case, Mrs. Burridge is concerned about her safety, but she does not want to ask Frank because she does not want to tell him what she thinks will happen. If Mrs. Burridge doesn’t tell him the truth, then she thinks Frank will tease her, saying, “who you planning to kill?” On second thought, she is unsure if this will be his response because she stopped paying attention to “things outside the house” 20 years ago.
Perhaps the townsfolk are stricken by fear and anxiety, but Mrs. Burridge should not necessarily be taken at her word. Although she regularly reads the thoughts and emotions of others, the narration never leaves her limited perspective and therefore the feelings of others are never confirmed. Additionally, it appears Mrs. Burridge’s fears are ramping up and she is attempting to transition from thoughts to actions. If Frank can no longer take care of her, then she wants to take care of herself. Once again, Frank appears oblivious to her true intentions and it is reiterated that the two of them essentially live in separate spheres of existence.
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Mrs. Burridge knows she will never hear Frank’s response to her question because she never plans to ask him. She does not want to tell him her fears such as, “Maybe you’ll be dead. Maybe you’ll go off somewhere when it happens, maybe there will be a war.” All of these thoughts occur to her as she is looking out the back window. However, she sees nothing outside, so she moves to the kitchen to make a shopping list.
Again, Mrs. Burridge does not want to tell Frank what she is thinking. Death and separation, or whatever she expects to “happen” someday, are too much for her to put into words and so she is left with her thoughts. As is the case for much of the story, Mrs. Burridge moves suddenly from profound subjects to mundane matters such as making a grocery list.
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Mrs. Burridge’s trip into town is the next day, and she wants to plan it so that she is not on her feet for too long. If she puts too much stress on her feet, they begin to swell, something that first occurred after Sarah was born. Mrs. Burridge has always been good about planning things in advance and already has next Christmas planned. However, now she finds this difficult because she believes the future is so uncertain. Instead, she would rather save her energy in case something happens. Even the shopping list—which she writes on the back of a calendar page— is difficult for her to focus on.
It is significant that Mrs. Burridge cannot be on her feet for too long, both because it is a bit of foreshadowing and because it again reveals the limitations of her old age. Her ability to plan ahead is also hindered, even if she is just thinking about the next few days. Additionally, the calendar page on which Mrs. Burridge writes is a representation of the time she has wasted and the time she has left. It is a constant reminder of her own mortality, although not one she consciously recognizes.
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Rather than write her list, Mrs. Burridge gazes around the room and thinks about all of the things she cannot take with her if she is forced to leave her home. In particular, she is sad at the idea of leaving behind valuable and sentimental items, such as her mother’s fine china, gifts for her children, and her grandmother’s quilt. She also thinks about her wedding photos, which show her in satin—a decision she regrets—and Frank in a suit that he only puts on now to go to funerals. In addition, she thinks of her children’s baby pictures and worries about her potential grandchildren. She hopes that her kids will not have children of their own because “it is no longer the right time for it.”
It appears that Mrs. Burridge’s current preoccupation is the fear she will have to leave her home, a space she simultaneously loves and feels trapped in. Her love for her family—or at least what her family used to be—shines through, although it is not without regrets. The fact that Frank’s wedding suit is now only used for funerals is yet another reminder of the Burridges’ mortality. In addition, it could suggest that marrying Frank was a sort of metaphorical death for Mrs. Burridge. Mrs. Burridge not wanting grandchildren indicates a deep pessimism about the future, which is especially telling given that she seems to treasure family in general.
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Mrs. Burridge wants someone to tell her what is going to happen so she can be prepared. She thinks everyone feels the way she does because of what she sees in the media. However, “nobody can be exact.” That said, Mrs. Burridge has her thoughts about what will happen. She thinks the world will become quiet, giving her the sense that something is off. There will be no more planes in the sky and very few noises from cars on the nearby highway. She believes the media will downplay the catastrophe and instead become “sweet-tempered and placating” rather than report on negative material like they do currently. This behavior will be a result of censorship, something Mrs. Burridge experienced during World War II. 
Although it is not mentioned frequently, the media played a significant role in how Mrs. Burridge now thinks. She suspects that they are always lying, and without media she can trust or other people around, she is left to her own thoughts. At this point, it becomes clear that Mrs. Burridge is worried about an earth-shattering event. She never provides specifics, although once again the possibility of nuclear war is hinted at.
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Afterwards, Mrs. Burridge is unsure of the order in which things will happen. However, she believes that soon—without explanation—there will be no more gas and oil, something she will realize when the delivery man does not show up. She thinks the powers that be—exactly who this is she does not know—will not want people to panic. Instead, they will want things to look normal, even if they are not. Mrs. Burridge worries that is the case even in the present moment. She feels lucky that she and Frank store a fuel tank in their shed, a private gas pump, and a wood stove.
Mrs. Burridge is careful to keep her claims vague. She does not seem to know a lot about geopolitics but she is skeptical of political institutions and does not believe that they are truthful to everyday people. Although she and Frank are largely self-sustaining in their lifestyle, their isolation leaves them vulnerable to the media’s lies, as she sees it, because they have no one around to confirm or deny the media’s claims.
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Mrs. Burridge also thinks the phone wires will go down and no one will repair them. This doesn’t bother Mrs. Burridge too much because she does not like the phone, but it will cause increased isolation. Around the same time, she thinks she will see young men walking along their back road, moving north. They will not look like the locals. Mrs. Burridge has not seen anyone on the back road in a long time and so this will be a cause for concern. She will have to let her dogs roam free to scare off potential intruders. 
Mrs. Burridge’s fear of city people is apparent in this section. The people who “will not look like the locals” are presumably those who are retreating from cities, and Mrs. Burridge treats them like harbingers of the apocalypse. It is also clear that she has no desire to help such people and instead wants to try to scare them off.
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Mrs. Burridge previously had to keep her dogs chained because they once bit a Jehovah’s Witness. Mrs. Burridge is not a Jehovah’s Witness herself, “but she respects their perseverance.” She also regularly purchases issues of Watchtower, the monthly religious magazine circulated by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now she is starting to think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a sect of Christianity that believes Armageddon is close at hand. Armageddon is essentially the biblical version of the apocalypse that results in hell on earth. Although Mrs. Burridge does not personally hold such religious beliefs, the fact that she regularly consumes apocalyptic ideas and is beginning to be swayed by them is revealing of her current mindset.
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When the phone lines go down and Mrs. Burridge starts seeing men on the back road, she plans to take one of Frank’s guns, probably the shotgun, and hide it under the roofing that sits on the backside of their barn. She does not plan to tell Frank about this because he will have his own gun. Also, during this time, she and Frank will need to use gasoline scarcely and they will have to eat their chickens. Mrs. Burridge hates preparing chickens and so she is especially not looking forward to doing so. It reminds her of “the angriest she ever got at Frank,” which is when he tried his hand at turkey farming. She hated the turkeys because she found them to be stupid and they ruined her garden. In addition, she had to pluck one turkey per week, and ultimately, they did not make any money.
Mrs. Burridge’s lack of trust in Frank is solidified in this section. Even in an apocalyptic scenario, she plans to lie to him. Furthermore, the detail she includes in this daydream suggests she has thought about such things many times before. Yet, even in her daydreams, she still finds time to digress and be mad at Frank, in this case for turkey farming. This suggests that her feelings about the direction of the world in general are largely tied to the direction of her personal life, although she is completely unaware of this fact.
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The next step in Mrs. Burridge’s vision of the future is for the electricity to slowly fade until it no longer works at all. She thinks this will ironically occur in November when food could be kept frozen outdoors anyway. Mrs. Burridge recalls the sentiment during the Great Depression that farm people had an advantage over those in the city because they had food. However, Mrs. Burridge is worried that is no longer the case. Instead, she and Frank will be completely isolated, and no electricity means no radio, television, or music. 
Mrs. Burridge’s predictions are once again shown to be excessively pessimistic, although the events she has lived through help to explain this. Both World War II and the Great Depression resulted in a fair degree of skepticism of social and economic institutions such as banks and the media. Many people of Mrs. Burridge’s generation remained skeptical of such institutions their entire lives, although, once again, Mrs. Burridge certainly represents an extreme version of this style of thinking.
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One day, Mrs. Burridge wakes up to find “columns of smoke,” so she finds Frank and the two of them stand and watch. It looks as though something has blown up. This makes Mrs. Burridge concerned for her children. She has not heard from them in quite some time because there has not been any mail. Soon Henry Clarke shows up in a large truck with a man from a nearby farm. Frank gives them all of the remaining gas and then tells Mrs. Burridge that the two men are going to check out “a little trouble down the road.” He then asks Mrs. Burridge for the shotgun, and she says she does not know where it is. He looks for it, cannot find it, and then kisses her goodbye before leaving with Henry Clarke and the other farmer.
Here, fantasy begins to blend with reality. Atwood will occasionally drop in subtle clues such as grocery list items to hint that the forthcoming events are not real, but the narrative style becomes much more immediate. Notice that Mrs. Burridge is no longer thinking about what will happen; she imagines she is actually in an apocalyptic scenario. Crucially, she does not trust Frank—who comes off as rather heroic here—and instead lies to him about his gun. Instead, she acts selfishly because she believes she must in order to survive.
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Mrs. Burridge “knows” Frank will not be back. She is not emotional about this moment because “she has been saying goodbye to him silently for years.” She moves back inside. At 51 years old and in pain, she realizes she cannot stay put in her home. In the days and weeks to come, she believes her isolated, well-stocked home will attract hungry people. They will fight over the land and food, but this is not a fight she wants any part in.
Although this moment is imagined, it once again speaks to the failure of Mrs. Burridge and Frank’s relationship. As she sends her husband to his death, she doesn’t shed a single tear and instead she focuses entirely on herself. In order to survive, Mrs. Burridge thinks she must be ruthless and expects others to do the same.
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Mrs. Burridge begins packing, bringing along warm clothes, food, and the hidden shotgun. She considers killing the animals so that others will not do so incorrectly, but then remembers that she does not know how to do so herself; it was always Frank’s job. Instead, she opens the gates so that the animals can run free, although she suspects they won’t. Afterwards, she looks at the house one more time, which causes her to go inside and get a toothbrush. She does not take anything from the cellar, but she worries that those who come to the house will be wasteful. She even considers burning the house down, although she decides against it. 
Even as she prepares to leave, Mrs. Burridge’s limitations are obvious. She has never killed an animal before and she is only able to take a limited amount of food. She also continues to worry about things that do not matter at all in this scenario, such as what will happen to her house once she is not there. Furthermore, although she seems more than willing to set off on her own, her reliance on common domestic comforts such as a toothbrush suggests that she is not prepared for what is to come.
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Mrs. Burridge thinks about what to do with the dogs. Eventually, she allows them to run free, although she does not let them come with her for fear that they will draw attention. She begins moving north, passing the family cemetery. She does not see anyone else around and worries she has done all of this for nothing. Eventually evening comes and Mrs. Burridge is weary. She knows the road she is on but is unfamiliar with the specific location. Soon she finds a stream and drinks from it before heading into a forest where she can avoid being seen. She plans on taking a break and eating while waiting for the moon to come out so she can go back to walking.
Again, death is always on Mrs. Burridge’s mind, as the family cemetery manages to make it into her daydream. One indication that this scenario exists only in Mrs. Burridge’s mind is the fact that she never mentions her feet hurting (something that came up earlier in her normal, everyday routine), despite presumably walking for many miles.
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Mrs. Burridge moves into the woods but quickly comes across two men at a fire. They see her and one starts moving in her direction. He smiles—which Mrs. Burridge takes as a threat—and says something, but Mrs. Burridge does not know what because “she does not know how people dressed like that would talk.” The men see her gun and Mrs. Burridge thinks they want to take it. When the men get closer, Mrs. Burridge decides that she must shoot them, otherwise she will die.
Before the first day is over, Mrs. Burridge is already in distress, which not a good sign for someone who spends a lot of time preparing for such a scenario. Interestingly, Mrs. Burridge momentarily breaks the illusion of the daydream by admitting that she does not know how such men “would talk.” This implies that the two men are from somewhere else and are therefore extra threatening to Mrs. Burridge; it also clues readers into the fact that this scenario is a product of Mrs. Burridge’s imagination.
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Mrs. Burridge knows she will have to fire the gun quickly but is worried about her ability to do so. She has never killed anything and is worried about “the loud noise or the burst of red that will follow.” She thinks about how it is impossible to know what her response will be until she actually pulls the trigger. Suddenly, the scene shifts back to Mrs. Burridge’s kitchen, and Mrs. Burridge is staring at her clock. She writes “Cheese” on her grocery list and then moves toward the kitchen door.
In this climactic moment, Mrs. Burridge realizes that such an event is not something she can plan for. Until this scenario occurs, she cannot know how she will react. Even so, the fact that she continues to stare at her clock suggests she will continue to fixate on the issue. Yet, she also must continue to live her ordinary, mundane life, and she does manage to finish her grocery list. Ultimately, the ending is ambiguous; although the apocalyptic scenario is clearly imagined, Mrs. Burridge’s feelings toward it are unresolved, and the fact that she returns to her accustomed spot at the kitchen door suggests that she will continue to dwell on apocalyptic scenarios like this one.
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