This essay explores the purpose of the character development of Mary in Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings.” The story is a work of metafiction and provides commentary on traditional storycrafting methods. A major component of the development of a story is the creation and evolution of characters. Further, the ways in which a character is described can certainly reflect the plot’s development. Atwood illustrates this in her use of several different characters in several different scenarios which escalate in detail. A story in which the characters are diverse, dynamic, and interesting only work to enrich the plot. With regard to “Happy Endings,” Atwood uses Mary to show a type of character (a static protagonist) and to highlight a stereotype (that of female characters) prevalent in various stories. The primary goal of “Happy Endings” is to show that all stories dealing with the dynamics of interpersonal relationships will end in a similar fashion: the death of all the characters. The close of a story, therefore, is not intriguing. The compelling parts of a story are the plot and, by extension, character development.
While Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” is primarily concerned with providing instruction regarding the formulation and importance of plot versus a story’s conclusion, the passage also offers insight regarding character development. Specifically, in this quintessential piece of metafiction, Atwood’s development of her characters is vital to a compelling, refined plot. The author shows readers and budding writers how intrinsically linked character and plot development are to one another in order to enforce the main point of the story: every piece of writing which explores interpersonal relationships will end in death. Atwood includes two major protagonists, John and Mary, and three minor characters, Madge, James, and Fred. The story’s choose-your-own-adventure style Atwood employs makes for an interesting exercise in character analysis because the characters are slightly different in each of the scenarios. The major character Mary is reflective of the purpose of “Happy Endings” because of her static nature in the passages in which she is present, the stereotypical role of a female character which she occupies, and the simple transferability her character offers between various points of reference.
All of the characters seem to be static characters in that none of them undergo any sort of huge transformation. Mary experiences substantial personal crises in two scenarios but remains static because the reader does not see her experience a change of heart, mind, or personality or switch her motivations for her actions. Atwood merely gives the reader a look into a small portion of Mary’s life without providing Mary’s history. Indeed, the only information the reader is privy to is Mary’s actions, justifications, and emotions in the passages’ brief moments: “…she does the dishes so he won’t think she’s untidy…” (2011), “He has never complained about food before, Mary is hurt” (2011), “Mary, who is only 22, feels sorry for him…she sleeps with him even though she’s not in love with him” (2011), and “Mary finds it boring, but older men can keep it up longer so on the whole she has a fairly good time” (2011). Regardless of her actions, Mary is met with death at the close of passages A, B, and C. Atwood’s main thesis, of course, is that death is the great equalizer and the best, most instructive parts of prose lie, not in the conclusion, but in the development of plot and, by extension, characters. Therefore, the build up of Mary’s experiences and feelings without any major transformation enhance the point of Atwood’s story.
An interesting aspect of Mary is that she seems to reflect stereotypically feminine qualities one often encounters in fiction. More often than not, she is passive and the one who is acted upon: she is used by John for sexual gratification and wallows in self-pity because of the lack of romantic reciprocation in B (2011) and is presented as some sort of Lolita-like character who doesn’t return the affections of a much older man who murders her in C (2011). Further, the actions she does take are irrational and “typically woman-like”: in B, she commits suicide with pills and alcohol over a man who doesn’t love her (2011). Instead of hard liquor she drinks sherry, a traditionally feminine beverage, and the author implies that even her drink of choice is representative of weakness. Atwood does not personally subscribe to these sorts of views of women that have been used so often by other fiction writers. Her use of female stereotypes in “Happy Endings” hearkens back to part of the essay’s metafictional purpose: to illustrate how a story is traditionally enriched by characters. It is absolutely unfortunate that a great number of writers have relied upon stereotypes to craft their characters (especially female ones). However, Atwood’s inclusion of a stereotypical character is a nod to this tradition, not necessarily an endorsement. Indeed, Atwood almost seems to be mocking the monotonous tradition.
Atwood’s development of Mary and her standing as a static, stereotypical protagonist make the character easily transferable across space and time. Someone from a different culture or country could read “Happy Endings” and understand it’s purpose as a sort of guide to prose. Mary is placed in three different scenarios which are not extraordinary and occur in every culture: falling in love, having a satisfactory married life, and eventually dying; suicide as the result of unrequited love; and being murdered as the result of unrequited love. While the circumstances of Mary’s deaths are shocking and drastic, there is nothing necessarily shocking or drastic about her actions or emotions up to that point. Most people will recognize the purposes Mary’s story arcs serve in the story: to carry the plot forward and to illustrate the various character types and qualities explored earlier in this essay. While the very particular details of fiction may vary from culture to culture, the recognizable skeleton of a story (namely, plot and character development) remains the same.
“Happy Endings” is merely commentary on the practice of story writing. Margaret Atwood is correct in her assertions that the beginning of a story is more fun than the end, all endings are the same, and the middle parts are just a series of events. However, she seems to be directly addressing the true connoisseurs she references in the close of the story who savor middle of a tale. They are the ones for whom Atwood composed this piece, instructing them with regard to the vitality of vigorous character and plot development in order to create interesting, resounding stories. One sees this effort reflected in Mary, whose status as a static, stereotypical character represents both a traditional, recognizable way to approach character creation and an almost satirical take on traditional female characters.