Atwood Happy Endings

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1. Introduction
        “Happy Endings” (1983) by Margaret Atwood begins with “John and Mary meet”
(63).    It is followed by six versions of story, which are alphabetically marked from “A”
to “F,” to provide several different scenarios.           Reading those stories optionally
according to the directions in the text (such as “What happens next? If you want a
happy ending, try A” (63)), each reader can pursuit a happy ending.             Nonetheless,
whichever way the reader goes through, he or she gets to the sentences “Eventually
they die.    This is the ending of this story” (64).   After finishing all the versions of the
story, the impersonal narrator says:

        You’ll face to it [“they die”], the endings are the same however you slice it.    Don’t
        be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake things….
             The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
             John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
             So much for endings.    Beginnings are always more fun.      True connoisseurs,
         however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do
         anything with.
             That’s about all that can be said for plots…. (69)

These have led many of the readers to regard “Happy Endings” as a satirical text or a
sneer.    However, is not it too simplistic?    There would be persons who think of death
as a happy ending.        In the first place, the opinion that “Happy Endings” should be a
satirical text or a sneer comes from the view that the ending of the plot is the sentence
“Eventually they die.”      However, it is not true.   The true end of “Happy Endings” is at
another place.

2. Criticism and Creation of Other Stories of A Happy Ending
        “Happy Endings” is one of Atwood’s short fictions, or her flash fictions.   1    It is in
her collections of short stories, Murder in the Dark (1983) and Good Bones and Simple
Murder (1994).      With the other stories in those two books, “Happy Endings” has been
almost neglected by the critics.      2   The stories have an unsavory reputation in the
review, too.    For instance, Kirkus writes “[Atwood] is always at her worst when her

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acerbic sneer overwhelms other elements” and that “[Good Bones] has more to do with
brevity than quality” and demonstrates “[the] laundry-list mentality usually reserved
for dead authors” (Wilson, 18).    The Atlantic writes, in the similar tone, that it is “free
from the structural demands of novels, short stories, and poetry,” and that it is “oddities
and fragments” (Wilson, 18).
     Readers can object, of course, to the remark as The Atlantic, by replying that it is
characteristic of a postmodernism fiction.        The majority of “Happy Endings” critics,
whose number is small, certainly view that the text is a meta-fiction to resist the
literary convention, especially the romantic novels.      With this view on the form of the
fiction connected to its contents, the critics regard “Happy Endings” as a satire or a
sneer at humans pursuing a happy ending.              For instance, David Galens says as

     Atwood’s satire is twofold.   It focuses on the unrealistic situation that she creates,
     which draws on an understanding that humans still hope for a simple ‘happy
     ending,’ as well as on the romantic genre of fiction that perpetuates this fantasy.
     …Atwood expects her reader to understand … that a happy ending does not exist,
     and in fact, that every person’s real ending is in death. (153)

     Aside from the despairing view in that a happy ending does not exist because of
our fate, the critics individually point out the problems in everyday life which drag
people pursuing a happy ending into unhappy conditions.             The critics define the
problems as what “Happy Endings” describes.            For example, those critics are the
criticism of the genre of romantic fiction and the roles it provides its female characters,
an oblique challenge to authors who rely too much on traditional and unoriginal writing
conventions, a sly dig at contemporary society, a pessimistic account of the relationship
between the sexes.   These might result from the critics’ following the statements in the
text: “Beginnings are always more fun.        True connoisseurs, however, are known to
favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with” (70).    Accepting
death as our fate, the critics try to enjoy “the stretch in between.”   However, when the
critics cannot do it, they consider the call from the text to “favor the stretch in between”
as a satire in the text and remark the factor in hindrance to their enjoyment as what
the satirical text “Happy Endings” describes.

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        Let us see the typical opinions.     Marea Calzada Perez writes that the text
criticizes “the typical middle-class ideal way of life.   For the writer, this ideal is naive
and absurd and it hardly ever comes true.             Nevertheless, the members of the
bourgeoisie seek it desperately, and even when they do not achieve it, they pretend they
do, with hobbies they do not really have time to practice.”      Nicole C. Rosevere focuses
the relationship between a human and a society.        She says “[Atwood] uses binaries to
decipher and decode society and their intentions.          Revealed through the binaries
fantasy versus reality and society versus the individual, Atwood’s contention that
society pressures individuals to conform to a standard, in order to achieve what is
perceived as true happiness.”      Related to Rosevere’s view, readers can present the
arguments by Donna Seaman and Rena Korb.                  Seaman comments that “Happy
Endings,” like Atwood’s other texts, questions the roots of human assumptions about
gender role with anger, shrewdness, sass, and humor (458).           Korb also states that
“Happy Endings” is an “attack” against “societal conventions, particularly those
surrounding the roles of women” (158).            Meanwhile, Perez points out, from the
viewpoint of Cixous’ “l’ecriture feminine” that one of the most interesting criticism of
“Happy Endings” is about language, especially about traditional women’s speech.3
Extending the last two views, Galens writes that, in order to fulfill the role as a
guardian of the moral and ethical sense of the community in “Happy Endings,” Atwood
threw out to the writers “who rely on the stereotypical characterization of men and
women and to the reader who accepts such gender typing” and simultaneously
challenged “other writers to more closely examine typical literary convention” (149).
       Incidentally, one may say that those views above can turn into critics/connoisseurs’
views on the way toward a happy ending in their lives too, whether they are aware or
not.    As Diane Andrews Henningfeld points out that “Happy Endings” is a “meta-life
story” (161), reading “Happy Endings” can be an experience of the way individuals
create their own lives.    The views on the story, John and Mary, reflect more or less on
the readers’ own views toward—or their own beliefs of        a happy ending in their lives.
The critics who expound their views on a happy ending often grant that it can be
expressed in negative form.     For example, unlike the couples in “Happy Endings,” for
Perez, the way toward a happy ending is not to seek “the typical middle-class ideal way
of life.”   For Rosevere, it is not to “conform to a standard” in society.       Unlike the
couples in “Happy Endings,” it might be a Deleuze-Guattarian schizophrenic life or a

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Groszian “fluids.”4
       Indeed, each of the views may be right as its own opinion to happy endings.
However, it is the same as those views create other stories in addition to the story “A” to
“F.”    Such a view is, thus, incredible as that of the text of “Happy Endings.”         Each
view also stems from their great belief in what the text states although it gives the
reader a caution not to do so.

3. Readers Must Not Be Deluded by the Narrator
        The belief originates in the fact that the readers stop reading the text halfway.
The readers would misunderstand the ending of the plot of “Happy Endings” is the
sentence “Eventually they die.”       The expressions in Galens’ statements as quoted
earlier can be found.    The same is true, for example, of Henningfeld’s remark following
his quotation of the part in the text just after the six versions of the story:

           … the endings are the same however you slice it.       Don’t be deluded by any
           other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fakes, with malicious intent
           to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright
           sentimentality…. The only authentic ending is the one provided here:          John
           and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

        Certainly, this is not an ending that readers expect, and certainly not a happy
        ending.” (160)

Readers indeed encounter the sentence “Eventually they die” whichever route they go
through in the text.     Even though the next sentence is “This is the end of the story,”
this sentence is not the ending of “Happy Endings.”       What the reader should notice is
not the ending of the “story” of the romance and marriage, but that of “plot” of a/the
       Readers must not be deluded by the narrator.    The narrator said as follows: “You’ll
have to face it; the endings are the same however you slice it.     Don’t be deluded by any
other endings, they’re all fake things….     The only authentic ending is the one provided
here: John and Mary die.      John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” This appears to

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be the remark about the part of the romance and marriage of John and Mary, as the
critics of “Happy Endings” think.       However, there is no specification as that in the text.
Moreover, the remark is focused on the plot of the text, but not on the story as the text
states just after the early quotation, “That’s about all that can be said for plots, which
anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.”               One can
naturally state that the remark “The only authentic ending is … John and Mary die”
applies to the ending of “Happy Endings” in itself too.
       Traversing its true ending, readers would find the ending is not “John and Mary
die” but “Now try How and Why.”              Thus, according to the narrator, readers must
regard “Happy Endings” as an “all fake” text.         One must “not be deluded by any other
endings.”    However, the narrator’s remark “not be deluded by any other endings” is
also included in the “all fake” text with the ending, which readers must “not be deluded
by.”   The narrator’s remark is “all fake” consequently.      However, the remark “all fake”
in itself is still in the “all fake” text.   When readers carefully read the text all the way
through, all the statements in “Happy Endings” eventually lose its reliability.
       However, by no means that “Happy Endings” is just an unreliable text to read.          It
rather means that the text is finally in neutral between reliability and unreliability,
and the text of “Happy Endings” is aware of such a state.           For reader’s trust in the
statements in the text makes him or her finally unable to trust them.         Looking back at
the beginning of our reading, we certainly have no intention of reading the text from the
viewpoint that the text has no meaning or that the text is unreliable.         The process of
our reading was as follows:

(1) The text states “That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one
  thing after another, a what and a what and a what.”             That is why we confirmed
(2) Next, we considered “how” the plot of “Happy Endings” works because the text states
  “Now try How” in the ending.         Then, we recognized that “Happy Endings” does not
  have the ending “John and Mary die.”

The reading was led by the statements of the text, but not by our arbitrary reading.

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4. Where Is A Happy Ending/”Happy Endings”?
        Now one must consider “why” because the text directs the reader to do it, “Now try
… Why,” at the end.        To do it, we begin with confirmation of some points.         When
reading the text halfway, the reader could hold some views on what “Happy Endings”
says.    However, when reading the text all the way through, what it had said became
unreliable.     It follows that whatever the critics described as “Happy Endings” are
meaningless.      As mentioned earlier, they have their own views on or their own beliefs
of the way toward a happy ending, or just other stories in addition to the story “A” to
“F” too.     It might result from their trust in the text’s remarks, “True connoisseurs,
however, are known to favor the stretch in between.”                  Nevertheless, all their
views/stories of the way toward a happy ending could not end up with “John and Mary
die.”    For, as have been pointed out, the views/stories are “aside from the despairing
view” that “a happy ending does not exist, and in fact, that every person’s real ending is
in death.”     Consequently, the views/stories are also “all fake.”    However, the view “all
fake” is also “all fake” as we confirmed.
        In short, one must not say “Happy Endings” is so-and-so.         Readers must never
define “Happy Endings.”        Otherwise, the text will instantly take us to the neutral.
“Happy Endings” repels all the views as to what “Happy Endings” says.                    It is
ultimately true that the reader can never speak of “Happy Endings” both as a text and
as a conception.
        It would be untrue, however, to say that the reader cannot speak of “Happy
Endings” because “Happy Endings” is multifarious.             “Happy Endings” is not an
embodiment of reader-response theory.           According to the theory, literature is a
performative art and each reading is a performance.        Literature exists only when it is
read; meaning is an event.      Meaning is indeterminate, is not in the text but in the play
of language and the nuances of conventions in which the reader is immersed: hence the
reader constructs a text as he or she participates in this play.       Certainly, the reader’s
pursuit of a happy ending/“Happy Endings” is the creation of another story in addition
to the story “A” to “F.”   Besides, the reader creates multiple stories by putting together
six versions of the story “A” to “F.”       However, the reader constructs stories to lose
confidence in the text or to realize that “a happy ending does not exist.”         When the
reader participates, as Wolfgang Iser supposes, in synthesizing, and indeed living,
events of meaning throughout the process of reading (9-10), he or she encounters the

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loss of the body (death) or the loss of the text (unreliability).   Even if one tries to accept
the variety of views of “Happy Endings,” the text in itself repels each of them.           The
same is true of the case where the reader applies a theory to describe what “Happy
Endings” says, as Seaman does.         The reader always faces the impossibility to identify
the text, or absence of the text or the body.
        We cannot say, however, that “Happy Endings” is just a vacant text just because
the impossibility of identification and that of the acceptance of the variety of views are
characteristic of the text.    Walter Benn Michaels discusses the two impossibilities in
The Shape of the Signifier. Michaels starts by examining the factor to determine a
literary work’s meaning: whether the author’s intent or the reader’s experience does it.
Through the discussion of the postmodernist and posthistoricist concern with identity’s
supposition of ideology in the post-Cold War, he insists on the validity of their theory.
On the other hand, he considers their theory dangerous, especially for the lower class,
in that it relativists every view and belief, and appreciates the acceptance of the variety
of views and beliefs.     There is no truth now.     One cannot believe something without
describing the reason why he or she believes it.       If unable to describing it at all, they
lose identity or they give their life for their own belief (e.g. a terrorist, suppressed
people).    Only people who can describe the reason for their beliefs can survive in the
post-Cold War.
        The meta-life story “Happy Endings,” however, never gives identity to even those
who describe the reason for their own beliefs.         “Happy Endings,” hence, expresses
disagreement with postmodernists.         If so, where is a happy ending/“Happy Endings”?
According to Michaels, who insists on stopping holding personal beliefs, we might
realize it after the time of theory.

1   On the subject of Atwood and a flash fiction, see Sharon R. Wilson.
2   For further details, see Wilson.
3   Cixous proposes l’ecriture feminine as a model that allows feminine desire, the
language of the body, to reconstitute expression as a revolutionary movement against
the masculine rhetorical structure that has defined language over time.
4    Grosz, 203-206.   There is only desperation for Galens because it is impossible for us

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not to die.

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    Students.     Detroit: Gale, 2002. 149-162.
Grosz, Elizabeth.      Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism.           Bloomington:
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Rosevere, Nicole C.     Happy Endings?    (
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    5, November 1:(1994), 458.
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