Caterina Saletnig

Kevin Canty’s short story “Happy Endings” is a captivating story that explores the limits placed on people’s happiness and the struggle to find ones true self.  The story examines the life of McHenry, a man who has spent most of his life pleasing others. We see him begin to question and explore himself after losing his wife and having his daughter move away. He begins to explore new interests, like the “Bangkok sunshine”, a massage place, and a Christian singles group. We see him struggle with trying to be happy for himself, and letting others dictate his happiness. The author uses imagery to express the main idea that people often settle and play the roles expected of them by others.

At the beginning of the story readers are immediately exposed to the dull and robotic life of McHenry. When the author is describing his life at the beginning of the story we already get a sense that there is a lack of passion and joy in his life. It seems that he is set in some sort of routine and has become content with playing roles that people like the “watchers” expect of him. We see how prevalent these roles are in his life when the narrator says, “He learned to look like he was working when he worked. He learned to act like a father when his daughter was around, to look like a husband when Marnie needed a husband. He did what people expected him to do, and maybe a little more.” (32). This part of the story really represents how the person he was, was more of a character that he played in order to please others expectations of who he was supposed to be.  This character he played was based on the expectations and rules that are set up in society on what a good husband and father look and act like. He ended up disconnecting from himself in order to play this character that he felt pressured to be because of this sense of being watched by others. He has spent so long playing a role and now that he no longer has to play that role because his wife passed and his daughter moved away, he does not know who he truly is.  After bird watching with Adele it says that “He felt like he didn’t know himself” (41). McHenry spent so long doing what was expected of him and pleasing others, that when he goes bird watching and isn’t trying to please anyone and is enjoying this moment with Adele, he felt strange because he is so used to playing a role and trying to please others. McHenry was always so worried about these “watchers” that he always lived his life as if he was walking on eggshells; always doing what he knew was acceptable and safe. When the narrator says, “They didn’t make a show of watching him, but they did” (32), the word “show” really stands out. McHenry was always playing some type of character during most of his life, and this word “show” makes it seem like he was a character in some sort of show for the watchers. It seems that they enjoyed watching him play this character for their entertainment or satisfaction, almost like he was some sort of puppet for them to manipulate and use.

McHenry changes drastically through the story, at the beginning he is always worried about being watched and what others will think. Nearing the end though he honestly doesn’t seem to care, it says, “he wasn’t trying to please anyone but himself” (43). We see that even though the pressures to act and be a certain way are still there, he chooses to ignore them because he is tired of simply feeling satisfied and pleasing others, he now wants to be happy. He also begins to start questioning if he has been missing out on being happy his whole life and why he has not let himself do and feel this way before: “what if this was not wrong?” (37), “had he been mistaken his whole life?” (38). When he starts asking these questions, is where I feel he truly begins to understand that he isn’t happy and that he spent so much of his life worrying about what others will think, and trying to please them. This is where I feel he truly wants to start being happy for himself.

McHenry began to feel comfortable pleasing himself and being selfish, even though at the beginning of the story he was always trying to please other. What is interesting is that just like how McHenry changes throughout the story, so do the seasons. The author seems to use the weather as a way to visually represent how McHenry would be feeling. At the beginning of the story when he is still trying to please others and play this character, spring is described as, “Just a hard season” (34). This also relates to how hard it must have been for him to play a character that didn’t represent or make him happy. Even when the narrator is describing a memory McHenry is having of his wife, there is this association with bad weather:  “Easter Sunday with Marnie in her flowery dresses and the freezing rain just pounding down” (34). Often, the weather does effect peoples moods, it has this sort of control over are emotions because of the feelings that we associate with different types of weather. When he is remembering passed memories, we see weather that is also usually associated with negative emotions, like rain and heavy wind. At the end of the story, when he is in the parking lot of the Bangkok sunshine, his descriptions of the season and the weather are much more positive: “He was standing, blinking in the warm sunlight, alone in an acre of gravel parking lot” (43). I think this imagery of before his wife passed and after, really represent his happiness, and how it has evolved. I think it shows the readers that not only the way he thinks is more positive, but also that he genuinely seems happy at the end. He is alone in a parking lot and has all these positive thoughts. The changing seasons and weather seem to also change with him, and the happier he is, the more beautiful the weather is. This also represents that he was able to take control of his life, even when he is still so pressured to behave a certain way, unlike the weather, which is uncontrollable, the decisions he makes for himself are in his control and he chose to finally take advantage of that.  McHenry was satisfied with the life he had, because it was the life that was expected of him and the role that he was supposed to play, he had a wife and a daughter that he cared about and he had a job to support his family. Yet he wasn’t happy, and I do not think that he realised how unhappy he was until he went to the Bangkok sunshine. I think that is what made him realize that he has been satisfied with his life but never truly happy. He was very selfless in the beginning of his life, always trying to make his family and others happy. He finally realizes that he is allowed to be selfish and that he has to be in order to be happy.

People often play the roles expected of them and become these characters based on rules set up by others, but when someone begins to questions and explore those expectations and themselves, we see the potential to break free from them.

 

Work Cited

Boyle, T.C., editor. “Happy Endings”. Kevin Canty. The Best American Short Stories. 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. New York, 2015.