A key feature of any narrative is the characterisation. How can we, as readers relate to who we are reading about. Regardless whether the characters are fictional, readers want to pretend they exist.
Margaret Atwood will begin this further analysis as we look at the female characters she creates in ‘Happy Endings.’ Mary is the main female character who exists within each scenario. She lacks depth as a character, purposefully so to grip the reader. The reader has the role to question Mary and her behaviour. If not, the reader must understand how female characterisation is often restricted. Mary consistently behaves based on the belief that a marriage and house will be her happy ending. As the reader, do you agree?
The ending of choice is problematic as Mary dies, each and every time. Atwood cleverly proposes death as the only alternative to Mary’s limited ambitions. Mary is conditioned by her gender which Atwood makes obvious. The nature of Mary’s narrow characterisation is also seen in Madge, the fellow female of this varied narrative. Madge appears when John participates in adultery within their marriage. Madge is the other woman, yet she does not diverge from Mary’s personality. A happy ending comes at a price in countless stories of Atwood’s (McWilliams 2009, p. 96). Nothing makes Mary or Madge particularly attachable, leaving the reader indifferent to their demise. The story structure makes more of an impact on readers than the characters. This creates distance between the reader as they go through each scenario (Yu, 2019).
The female characters are restricted based on their gender as they centre their lives on how a man treats them. Although, the reader remains interested due to the extreme nature of each scenario. A postmodern context sheds light on Atwood’s oppressed female protagonists (Obidič 2017, p. 5). The female characterisation lacks significance, but Atwood does this to jolt the reader into being conscious of clichés.
Secondly, we are going to delve deeper into Angela Carter, into her contemporary take on classic fairy tales. Simpson (2006) describes the fairy tales to be “science fiction of the past,” promoting how storytelling can evolve. There is no ideal woman despite what fairy tales often encourage. Carter destroys the typical narrative by throwing postmodernism into the mix. Femininity becomes irrelevant as Carter’s characters dismiss the “social fiction” of the idea (Gordon, 2016). The Countess in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ is soullessly beautiful, described as a “disorder” by Carter (1979, p. 108). The disorder being her vampirism and the reason for her life’s expiry. Doubtfully, a life when the Countess merely survives by devouring rabbits and men. The Countess is appealing to readers as she is realistic. Despite her immorality, she has an emotional response, “I do not mean to hurt you. I will be gentle” (Carter 1979, p. 119). Carter’s imperfect female characterisation encourages realism within the fictional narrative.
When fiction meets realism, readers can engage more so than ever. The storytelling develops further, into a three dimensional experience. The Countess and her castle are both haunted, surrounded by death. The irony exists in the nature of death, which represents life. It is through death that the Countess transforms into a human. Carter invites readers to see the Countess’ vulnerability when she first sees sight of her own blood. This allows readers to recognise flaws within female characters, even in fairy tales.
Lastly, Carmen Maria Machado’s creation of the nameless girl in ‘The Husband Stitch.’ She wears a green ribbon across her neck, from birth. The ribbon symbolises her female uniqueness which the male characters continuously interrogate. At the age of seventeen, the young girl chooses her partner, a young boy. The characterisation of the young girl grows with her life’s narrative. Her physical attributes are mentioned in an attempt to justify her behaviour to engage with the “craggy” boy at the party (Machado 2017, p. 3). Machado leaves the main female character as anonymous, creating mystery within the narration. The female characterisation extends with each role within her relationship. Beginning as a high school sweetheart, then wife, then mother, and throughout a sexual partner. The female protagonist is a sensual woman who accepts her life for its storybook like sequence (Corrigan, 2018).
For discussion sake, let’s refer to the nameless girl as Jane. Jane and Atwood’s Mary share similarities in regard to their goals for marriage and a family. However, Jane has her green ribbon to diversify her from any other female character. Like Mary, Jane finds death in her assumed ‘happy ending’. As readers we draw parallels to the husband, pushing boundaries to know more about the nameless girl’s ribbon (Corrigan, 2018). The choice of green is not feminine, nor masculine. The ribbon mirrors the nameless girl, merging the two characters into one as her ribbon exists as a character itself. An additional item to the nameless girl which makes her exceptional and ultimately, alive. Protection came with the ribbon’s existence. The nameless girl does not believe her husband is evil, “and yet-” he removes her ribbon (Machado 2017, p. 30).
“My weight shifts, and with it, gravity seizes me. My husband’s face falls away, and then I see the ceiling, and the wall behind me.”(Machado 2017, p. 31)
The formula for female characters exists, as it does for male characters. Women are categorised as feminine and men are seen to be masculine. The rule can be broken to benefit characterisation. Fiction can reflect reality, therefore, women can be masculine and men can be feminine.