→ Literary analysis – Philosophy
North Carolina State Univ.
FALL 2022

Death & Choices

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin said that the only things promised in life were death and taxes. While amusing at face value, the thought of this quote reaches deeper than mandatory financial contributions to one’s government and one’s eventual expiration—that while each person will eventually die, the opportunity she has to contribute to her community by means even beyond financial may be considered a promise of sorts as well. Margaret Atwood explores this in her short story “Happy Endings,” a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative. Within the story, characters find their way in and out of love, trauma, and difficulties, most of which are interconnected. The characters all live and die in different ways, and the reader seems to be given varying levels of choice throughout the story to help guide the characters on their way through life. Atwood utilizes an interactive structural technique to illustrate and emphasize that death is life’s only true promise, and that everything else is personal choice and chance.

To best understand that death is life’s only promise, it is simplest to begin with the story’s first ending. From the beginning, Atwood forces her reader to think they have control over the outcome of John and Mary’s lives: “Try A,” a gentle nudge into what becomes the baseline for each of the other endings—in section A, John and Mary live a decent enough life together and “eventually they die” (Atwood 1). The subsequent longer sections of the story include more details about their characters’ day to day lives, choices, and experiences, but almost all of them end with “everything continu[ing] as in A” (Atwood 2). Even though the reader has the illusion of being able to select the story’s ending, each supposed different selection the reader makes ends with the death of each character. Death, therefore, is presented as an inescapable outcome regardless of what choices are made during life. Towards the end of the story, Atwood levels with the reader, dropping each of her characters completely in favor of speaking plainly about “the endings [being] the same however you slice it” (Atwood 3). The structure of this story allows the reader to slice it six different ways, but in reality, the reader doesn’t actually get to “slice” anything at all. “The only authentic ending,” according to Atwood, is that “John and Mary die” (3). Certainly this truth exists in the living world: everyone and everything will eventually come to pass. The authenticity of this ending is the primary premise of Atwood’s story, amplified by the fact that it so clearly mirrors the real world.

Perhaps the more entertaining argument to be made by the short story is one of what we choose. As previously mentioned, the story’s narrative structure inherently suggests to the reader that they may control the lives of Mary and John. Though Atwood may begin with the argument that the choice is an illusion because nothing can change what occurs at the end, it becomes clear to the reader that the true selection being made is that of what comes before the end. Despite the fact that John and Mary (and each of the subsequent characters) are being funneled towards death, each scenario finds the characters in wildly different situations. While John and Mary in A enjoy “a stimulating and challenging sex life” after getting married, John uses Mary for sex and nothing more in B (Atwood 1). Although both of these situations end in Mary’s death, the circumstances in situation B are much more gruesome—the same outcome is brought on in two very different ways because of the choices that each character made in life. At the very end of the short story, Atwood states that “the stretch in between” the beginning and the end of a story is “the hardest to do anything with,” (Atwood 3). Although it is possible she may be speaking primarily about writing (she mentions “plots” in the next sentence), the same can be said for the everyday experiences of human beings. It is easy to understand that one day everyone will die, but what is one supposed to do with “the stretch in between” now and then (Atwood 3)? Maybe the fact that this amount of time is not promised makes it even more difficult—the reliability of death makes it easier to plan for. How does one plan for emotional manipulation, marriage, infidelity, love, natural disaster, loss, and so forth? Are the joys and difficulties of life not just as much a promise as its end? These are the things that “true connoisseurs [...] are known to favor” (Atwood 3). Although these things are not as certain as death, they are arguably more valuable in that they teach us more through their diversity.

The choose-your-own-adventure narrative structure of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” directly reflects the truths visible in everyday life: that no day is promised but the last. However, Atwood makes a point to create vivid differences between each section within the short story. The days in between one’s beginning and end, as Atwood illustrates, are much more interesting and favored by “true connoisseurs.” Certainly one may rely on the eventuality of her own death, but she must also take responsibility for the choices she makes in between now and then. This is where Atwood argues authenticity lives: in the understanding of the promise of death as well as the understanding of individual choice and consequence. Yes, death is the only promise, but the spice of life is what truly creates lived authenticity.

Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” Murder in the Dark, by Margaret Atwood, Coach House Books, 1983.