“Happy Endings” is an unhappy failure if the writing is judged by standardized testing measures of of quality. Atwood seemingly commits the worst crime possible in constructing fiction: she dumps a cast of undeveloped characters into story lacking even the most basic semblance of a plot. All is not as it seems, however. “Happy Endings” is an interactive experiment that gives the reader power over character development and plot mechanics by offering six different alternative endings.
Death by Landscape
Atwood often sets her stories in the Canadian wilderness as a way of using setting to examine themes ranging from survival to the threat of American imperialism. This wilderness in this story exists the childhood memory of a young girl at summer camp when her best friend fell over a cliff. The raw savagery of nature in this case intensifies the gnawing guilt, mixed with anger at initially being accused of pushing her friend off the cliff.
The isolation and alienation from society that is characterized by Atwood wilderness stories is subverted in this urban tale of isolation and alienation. Yvonne is an artist compelled to follow strange men around the street for the ultimate purpose of drawing them. The act of art connects this tale of the city to those that take place in the woods are Yvonne comes to seem like a predator whose drawings feast upon the very souls of her prey.
The recurring motif of the struggle between patriarchal tradition and feminist empowerment that runs throughout Atwood’s body of work takes center stage in this unusual and controversial story. A group of spend their lunch break discussing the topic of what it means for a woman to fantasize about being raped. The topic of this discussion was stimulated by a critique of the media for reducing the rape to the level of "infotainment" reportage.
The Man from Mars
Another analysis of the power struggle between the sexes takes the form of a surpassingly strange story about a stalker. A young Canadian woman is obsessively followed by a Southeast Asian man from a country embroiled in Civil War. The tables are unexpectedly turned when her decision to research his history has the ultimately bizarre effect taking her victimhood to unprecedented levels as she slowly loses her identity.
A parallel timeline of events offers insight into why the relationship between Becka and Joe unravels on this story that seeks to shed light on both perspectives in the latest battle taking place in Atwood’s ongoing war between the sexes.
A couple takes a vacation to a Caribbean island and while there embark upon a trip to a swamp. The purpose is to take advantage of what may be the only opportunity actually see the rare scarlet ibis. The journey toward this attraction becomes a jarring examination of how the forces of unfamiliar environments create tensions for those who risk stepping out their comfort zone.
Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of the Language
Atwood’s fascination with sexual roles and the resulting power hierarchy takes on a new dimension in this story of the titular patroness of male poets. Among those whom her fortunes allow to exploit are an ex-husband and former lovers.
A woman’s recollection of her first romantic encounter as a teenage created a context within which she pre-determined her unhappy marriage.
The Headless Horseman
Two sisters driving to visit their sick mother recall a Halloween as kids when the older sister made a Headless Horseman costume, which the young sister would later introduce in the games she played alone after the older sister moved out.
The Resplendent Quetzal
A married couple’s vacation to Mexico becomes as strained and uneventful as their marriage until the wife steals a toy figure of Jesus. At the moment of her contemplation over whether or not to throw the toy into a sacrificial well, her husband concludes that she is contemplating suicide. In this moment of the unknown is created a moment of indecision. His angst over the reality of their relationship gives him pause over whether to stop her or save her. When he realizes her actual intention, he makes a move to provide comfort, but they wind up right back where they were.
A brutal exercise in creating the tense paranoia of living in a society where information is controlled by a totalitarian regime enforcing a rigid boundary between the desirables and the non-desirables. In this particular case, the non-desirables are those living outside Toronto in a world ravaged by those infected by sexually transmitted diseases.
Atwood’s obsessions with patriarchal authority and feminist rebellion come to a head with this story. It is a satirical vision of a future in which all conventional gender roles and expectations have been utterly reversed.