When It Happens

by

Margaret Atwood

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Themes and Colors
The Mundane and the Apocalyptic  Theme Icon
Control vs. Lack of Control Theme Icon
Family, Community, and Isolation Theme Icon
The Patterns of Domestic Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in When It Happens, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Control vs. Lack of Control Theme Icon

“When It Happens” depicts an extreme case of a universal fear: the lack of control one has over the future. Mrs. Burridge desires to control every aspect of her life. Her home is largely self-sustaining and includes animals for food and milk, a gas pump, and plenty of room for storage. Yet, Mrs. Burridge constantly worries that these things are not enough. She works hard to create a surplus of goods, only to worry about people coming to steal those goods. Her life is a vicious cycle in which she performs an action that is meant to make her feel more in control, but that action actually creates more problems, at least in her mind. Mrs. Burridge also regularly worries about the abilities that she lacks. For a long time, she has relied on Frank for protection, but she realizes that this is no longer a viable option in his old age. She wants to be able to use a gun to protect herself, but she never asks him to teach her how, and even in her fantasies she has a hard time pulling the trigger. Ultimately, then, there is a cruel irony to Mrs. Burridge’s actions (or failures to act), because her desire for control results in a repetitious and mundane way of living that only perpetuates her fears rather than helping her confront them.

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Control vs. Lack of Control ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Control vs. Lack of Control appears in each chapter of When It Happens. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Control vs. Lack of Control Quotes in When It Happens

Below you will find the important quotes in When It Happens related to the theme of Control vs. Lack of Control.
When It Happens Quotes

On paper Frank is making more money than he ever has: yet they seem to have less to spend. They could always sell the farm, she supposes, to people from the city who would use it as a weekend place; they could get what seems like a very high price, several of the farms south of them have gone that way. But Mrs. Burridge does not have much faith in money; also it is a waste of the land, this is her home, she has it arranged the way she wants it.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge, Frank Burridge
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

The cellar is the old kind, with stone walls and a dirt floor. Mrs. Burridge likes to have everything neat . . . The pickles go on one side, jams and jellies on the other, and the quarts of preserves along the bottom. It used to make her feel safe to have all that food in the cellar; she would think to herself, Well, if there’s a snowstorm or anything and we’re cut off, it won’t be so bad. It doesn’t make her feel safe any more. Instead she thinks that if she has to leave suddenly she won’t be able to take any of the jars with her, they’d be too heavy to carry.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

She comes back up the stairs after the last trip. It’s not as easy as it used to be, her knee still bothers her as it has ever since she fell six years ago, she tripped on the second-last step. She’s asked Frank a million times to fix the stairs but he hasn’t done it, that’s what she means by pig-headed. If she asks him more than twice to do something he calls it nagging, and maybe it is, but who’s going to do it if he won’t? The cold vacant hole at the back of this question is too much for her.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge, Frank Burridge
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

He can’t protect me. She doesn’t think this on purpose, it simply occurs to her, and it isn’t only him, it’s all of them, they’ve lost the power, you can tell by the way they walk. They are all waiting, just as Mrs. Burridge is, for whatever it is to happen. Whether they realize it or not.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge, Frank Burridge
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

All her life, ever since she got married, she has made lists of things that have to be bought, sewed, planed, cooked, stored; she already has her list made for next Christmas, all the names and the gift she will buy for each, and the list of what she needs for Christmas dinner. But she can’t seem to get interested in it, it’s too far away. She can’t believe in a distant future that is orderly like the past, she no longer seems to have the energy; it’s as if she is saving it up for when she will have to use it.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Burridge wishes someone would be more precise, so she could make better plans. Everyone knows something is going to happen, you can tell by reading the newspapers and watching the television, but nobody is sure what it will be, nobody can be exact.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

It is about this time too that she takes one of the guns, she thinks it will be the shotgun as she will have a better chance of hitting something, and hides it along with the shells, under a piece of roofing behind the barn. She does not tell Frank; he will have the twenty-two. She has already picked out the spot.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge, Frank Burridge
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

She must wait until they are close enough and then she must raise the gun and shoot them, using one barrel for each, aiming at the faces. Otherwise, they will kill her, she has no doubt about that. She will have to be fast, which is too bad because her hands feel thick and wooden; she is afraid, she does not want the loud noise of the burst of red that will follow, she has never killed anything in her life. She has no pictures beyond this point. You never know how you will act in a thing like that until it actually happens.

Related Characters: Mrs. Burridge
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis: