Unveiling The Layers of Symbolism in Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings"

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About this sample


Words: 705 |

Pages: 2|

4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Words: 705|Pages: 2|4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024


Margaret Atwood's short story "Happy Endings" serves as a rich tapestry of symbolism, weaving a narrative that transcends its simplistic title. Written in 1983, this metafictional piece explores the multifaceted nature of storytelling and human experience. Atwood presents six different scenarios that all lead to the same conclusion, challenging the reader to look beyond the surface and question the significance of the journey over the destination. This essay delves into the symbolic elements within "Happy Endings," illustrating how Atwood uses these symbols to critique societal norms, explore existential themes, and reflect on the inherent unpredictability of life.

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One of the most prominent symbols in "Happy Endings" is the notion of the 'happy ending' itself. Atwood deliberately subverts this concept by presenting multiple plotlines that all conclude with "John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die." This repetition serves as a stark reminder of the inevitability of death, regardless of the paths taken in life. By doing so, Atwood emphasizes the futility of striving for a perfect ending and underscores the importance of the journey. The 'happy ending' becomes a symbol of societal expectations and the often misguided pursuit of happiness, urging readers to rethink their own narratives and the values they hold dear.

Another significant symbol in the story is the characters' relationships, which reflect the complexities and contradictions of human connections. For instance, in scenario B, Mary is in love with John, who only uses her for sex. This relationship symbolizes the imbalance of power and the emotional turmoil that often accompanies unrequited love. Similarly, in scenario C, Atwood introduces James, who is infatuated with Mary. This scenario highlights the cyclical nature of desire and the repetitive patterns of human behavior. Through these relationships, Atwood critiques the traditional romantic ideal and exposes the often messy and imperfect reality of human interactions.

Atwood also employs the settings and situations within each scenario to symbolize broader societal issues. For example, in scenario D, John and Mary’s lives are disrupted by a natural disaster, symbolizing the unpredictability and uncontrollable aspects of life. This scenario serves as a metaphor for the larger existential uncertainties that individuals face, reminding readers that no matter how meticulously one plans, external forces can always alter the course of one's life. Furthermore, the various settings, ranging from suburban homes to war zones, symbolize the diverse backdrops against which life's dramas unfold, emphasizing that no one is exempt from the trials and tribulations of existence.

Moreover, the metafictional structure of "Happy Endings" itself serves as a symbol of the art of storytelling. Atwood breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader and acknowledging the artificiality of her narrative. This self-referential technique symbolizes the constructed nature of stories and the role of the author in shaping narratives. By doing so, Atwood invites readers to question the authenticity of the stories they consume and the ways in which narratives influence their perceptions of reality. The metafictional elements also underscore the theme of choice and agency, as Atwood presents multiple scenarios, each representing different choices and consequences, ultimately leading to the same conclusion.

Lastly, the recurring motif of mortality in "Happy Endings" symbolizes the universal human condition. Atwood's insistence that "John and Mary die" in every scenario serves as a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death. This motif compels readers to confront their own mortality and consider the transient nature of life. By juxtaposing the mundane details of daily life with the inescapable reality of death, Atwood encourages readers to find meaning and purpose in the present moment, rather than fixating on an elusive 'happy ending.'


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In conclusion, Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings" is a masterful exploration of symbolism, weaving together themes of societal critique, existential reflection, and the art of storytelling. Through the symbolic use of happy endings, relationships, settings, and the metafictional structure, Atwood challenges readers to reconsider their perceptions of happiness, love, and the human experience. The story serves as a poignant reminder that while the end is certain, the journey is what truly shapes our lives. By engaging with the symbolic elements of "Happy Endings," readers are invited to reflect on their own narratives and the choices that define their existence, ultimately finding meaning in the journey rather than the destination.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Unveiling the Layers of Symbolism in Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”. (2024, Jun 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Unveiling the Layers of Symbolism in Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”.” GradesFixer, 14 Jun. 2024,
Unveiling the Layers of Symbolism in Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Unveiling the Layers of Symbolism in Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Jun 14 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:
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