Below is an assignment given to 10th grade students at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Virginia. "Another fine example of FCPS' X-rated agenda."
Directions: Read Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings.” Then respond to the questions below.
Below, write your initial reactions to the story. Did you like it? If so, what particularly did you enjoy? If not, what about it did you dislike?
Now revisit your favorite ending. Why was it your favorite? What elements of it surprised you?
John and Mary
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
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 himself.
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
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.
Submitted: Mar 28, 2021