How and Why
In writing, as in life, there are certain expectations and conventions one is meant to fulfill. Exposition, Rising action, Climax, Falling action, Denouement: these are the necessary steps in writing prose. But to some writers, this does not always result in meaningful or even interesting works. Some mavericks beg the question “How and why?” One such maverick, namely Gertrude Stein, challenged the norms associated with short stories frequently, particularly in a 1922 tribute to a couple of her close bohemian friends “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”. In favor of focusing on plot and setting, her manipulation of words in both an aesthetic and eloquent manner displays the characters over every other aspect in the story. Following in these footsteps, prolific Canadian author Margaret Atwood defied the standards of short stories in a more direct way with her composition entitled “Happy Endings”. In this piece Atwood satirizes the typical happy endings of traditional stories, ultimately pointing out that the only ending is death, and instead writes interesting “middles” in the story, all focusing on different (and occasionally the same) couples. In their respective, rebellious works, Stein and Atwood defy a typical, plot-driven story to focus on their characters’ interpersonal relationships.
Miss Furr and Miss Skeene are depicted as two women who form a bond over their interest in “cultivating their voices” and “being gay together”. They move in together, away from their families, to participate in their common interests. It’s interesting to note that the subtext of the story suggests an intimate relationship between the two women, a theory only substantiated by the intimate relationship of not only the real-life couple the characters were based on, but also of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. This story, then, marks one of the first uses of the word “gay” as a synonym for homosexuality. On this vein of thought, the relationship between the two women is strengthened in the eyes of the reader, and their experiences, thusly, have more meaning than if they were just good friends.
Stein utilizes what critics call a “word portrait” to tell her story, where she transposes the ideas and techniques commonly associated with the fine arts and applies them to her writings. In exchange for a relatively simplistic plot in which the two women meet, spend time together, and break up, Stein carefully chooses specific words and phrases that she repeats again and again to emphasize the relationship between the characters: “They were quite gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.”
Atwood, too, sacrifices a linear plot for a character-driven story in “Happy Endings”. This story appears to share the same characteristics of repetitive and focused description and action of the protagonists as Stein’s work did; by dividing the text up into six different vignettes, Atwood allows herself to fill the work up with many different stories that all share a connective thread. She weaves the relationships of John and Mary, John and Madge, Mary and James, and Fred and Madge in an overlapping fashion that all end with death, for “…the endings are the same however you slice it”. Instead of building up to a climax, she tries the “how and why” of a plot by favoring “the stretch in between” since they “are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.”
Slyly, Atwood mocks the typical layout of a story, and perhaps even the typical subject of a story in “Happy Endings”. In recent years, this work has been described as “metafiction”, which is defined as “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.” While that sums it up nicely, Atwood never intended to write a piece of metafiction; she intended to write a short story. It seems like a natural reaction from people to put labels and qualifiers on that which is unfamiliar, but it would appear that this was not the reaction Atwood intended, and in fact, was quite the opposite. Regardless of whatever epithet critics choose to give “Happy Endings”, it remains a tribute to the avant-garde in writing prose.
To challenge and renounce expectations and standards can result in interesting, thought-provoking works of prose, as illustrated by the stories “Miss Fur and Miss Skeene” and “Happy Endings”. But, before I write an ending (of which we have learned there is only really one), instead I close with the request to go back and read the middle of this essay; it should be more interesting.
*uncomfortably humid or airless. I didn't know it could mean that, but I needed an alliterative title.