“Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood

John and Mary meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A.
John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs
which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go
up.  Eventually,  when  they  can  afford  live-in  help,  they  have  two  children,  to  whom  they  are
devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life
and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies
which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story.
Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary. He merely uses her body for
selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind. He comes to her apartment twice a week
and she cooks him dinner, you’ll notice that he doesn’t even consider her worth the price of a
dinner out, and after he’s eaten dinner he fucks her and after that he falls asleep, while she does
the dishes so he won’t think she’s untidy, having all those dirty dishes lying around, and puts on
fresh  lipstick  so  she’ll  look  good  when  he  wakes  up,  but  when  he  wakes  up  he  doesn’t  even
notice, he puts on his socks and his shorts and his pants and his shirt and his tie and his shoes, the
reverse order from the one in which he took them off. He doesn’t take off Mary’s clothes, she
takes  them  off  herself,  she  acts  as  if  she’s  dying  for  it  every  time,  not  because  she  likes  sex
exactly, she doesn’t, but  she wants  John to think she does because if they do it often  enough
surely he’ll get used to her, he’ll come to depend on her and they will get married, but John goes
out the door with hardly so much as a good-night and three days later he turns up at six o’clock
and they do the whole thing over again.
Mary gets run-down. Crying is bad for your face, everyone knows that and so does Mary but she
can’t stop. People at work notice. Her friends tell her John is a rat, a pig, a dog, he isn’t good
enough for her, but she can’t believe it. Inside  John, she thinks, is another  John, who is much
nicer. This other John will emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, a Jack from a box, a pit from a
prune, if the first John is only squeezed enough.
One evening John complains about the food. He has never complained about her food before.
Mary is hurt.
Her friends tell her they’ve seen him in a restaurant with another woman, whose name is Madge.
It’s not even Madge that finally gets to Mary: it’s the restaurant. John has never taken Mary to a
restaurant. Mary collects all the sleeping pills and aspirins she  can find, and takes them and  a
half a bottle of sherry. You can see what kind of a woman she is by the fact that it’s not even
whiskey. She leaves a note for John. She hopes he’ll discover her and get her to the hospital in
time and repent and then they can get married, but this fails to happen and she dies.
John marries Madge and everything continues as in A.
John, who is an older man, falls in love with Mary, and Mary, who is only twenty-two, feels
sorry for him because he’s worried about his hair falling out. She sleeps with him even though
she’s not in love with him. She met him at work. She’s in love with someone called James, who is
twenty-two also and not yet ready to settle down.
John on the contrary settled down long ago: this is what is bothering him. John has a steady,
respectable job and is getting ahead in his field, but Mary isn’t impressed by him, she’s impressed
by James, who has a motorcycle and a fabulous record collection. But James is often away on his
motorcycle,  being  free.  Freedom  isn’t  the  same  for  girls,  so  in  the  meantime  Mary  spends
Thursday evenings with John. Thursdays are the only days John can get away.
John is married to a woman called Madge and they have two children, a charming house which
they bought just before the real estate values went up, and hobbies which they find stimulating
and challenging, when they have the time. 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.
One day James breezes in on his motorcycle with some top-grade California hybrid and James
and Mary get higher than you’d believe possible and they climb into bed. Everything becomes
very  underwater,  but  along  comes  John,  who  has  a  key  to  Mary’s  apartment.  He  finds  them
stoned  and  entwined.  He’s  hardly  in  any  position  to  be  jealous,  considering  Madge,  but
nevertheless he’s overcome with despair. Finally he’s middle-aged, in two years he’ll be as bald
as an egg and he can’t stand it. He purchases a handgun, saying he needs it for target practice–
this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later–and shoots the two of them and
Madge,  after  a  suitable  period  of  mourning,  marries  an  understanding  man  called  Fred  and
everything continues as in A, but under different names.
Fred and Madge have no problems. They get along exceptionally well and are good at working
out any little difficulties that may arise. But their charming house is by the seashore and one day
a giant tidal wave approaches. Real estate values go down. The rest of the story is about what
caused the tidal wave and how they escape from it. They do, though thousands drown, but Fred
and Madge are virtuous and grateful, and continue as in A.
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.
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, either deliberately fake, 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.
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, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what
and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.


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