As I was thinking back on the novels we’ve read this past semester, the concept of the marriage plot has been particularly pervasive and on my mind. We’ve read about the intricate social network, made up largely of marital relationships, in Middlemarch; we’ve traveled alongside Holly and Leo as they seek out his destined mate in She; and we’ve struggled to discern the truth by solving the mystery that is The Moonstone, all the while waiting for the inevitable close of the story that comes only once marriage and children are finally achieved for our dearest protagonists. With all of these novels in mind, I thought I would share one of my favorite short stories by Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings.” I shared this with Professor Hensley earlier in the semester, but I thought I’d pass it along to the rest of you as well, since it evokes so many of the themes and conversations we’ve had as we’ve entered into these various worlds centered so strongly around marriage.
The short story can be found here, http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~rebeccal/lit/238f11/pdfs/HappyEndings_Atwood.pdf, but I wanted to point out a few things in particular about the content. Atwood presents her reader with the typical progression of marriage: John and Mary meet, fall in love, get married, and eventually die. But this isn’t all Atwood does. She then goes on to provide alternative endings, those scenarios that you come up with so many times in your head, even if they aren’t true. What if I had said this? What if I discovered this about him, and everything turned on its head? As she draws you along, the plot ultimately remains the same. The pair meets, and despite any difficulties they face, or any other people that they meet, their story ends in marriage, and finally in death. So what does this all mean, and why do these differences matter?
In my opinion, we must do what Atwood commands us to do at the close of her story: “Now try How and Why.” The beginning and the end aren’t the parts that truly matter; and it is the middle part, the part that takes up so much of Middlemarch, She, and The Moonstone. We don’t care just how the story begins or ends, because that isn’t the inherently human, emotional part of the text. We care why She goes into the fire for Leo; we want to know who stole the moonstone, not just that it ended up in its rightful place. These are the details that matter to us, because they are the interesting part. The word “interesting” may be taboo (sorry for using it, I’m cringing as I write this), but what it conveys is this: we care. The characters matter because we see ourselves in them, not because there is a plot that makes them do this or that. The marriage plot if nothing else provides us with different ways “the stretch in between” (Atwood) can go, and uncover motivations and drives and qualities that we never knew existed. So take Atwood’s advice, and uncover the “How” and the “Why” of the next marriage plot-driven text you read. If we’ve learned nothing else this semester, it’s that the voice of the character matters – so listen to what he or she has to say.