Course Name: 602- 102- MQ 00008
Teacher’s Name: Jeff Gandell
October 16th, 2017
Fear of The Unknown
Kevin Canty’s short story ‘Happy Endings’ discusses the protagonist’s, McHenry’s, fear of being judged by the people he knows. Canty portrays it through McHenry’s thoughts when everyone is around, the death of his wife and when he finally discovers what he desires. Living a life where he is watched by the society, McHenry puts on a mask to conceal his true self, fearing the unknown, and consequently hurting himself. Thus, he never realized the death of his significant other, to some extent, is the key moment that make him rethink and take down the mask he has been wearing for years.
The protagonist is a Christian, being raised under a microscope, being surveilled by others. “All his life McHenry had lived with someone watching him, a mother, father, a wife, a daughter, his customers” (32). The fifty-nine years old McHenry must adapt and accumulate himself to fit himself in the society; and act how everyone expects him to act. “He wasn’t expecting to find himself with nobody watching, but here he was, age fifty-five” (32). McHenry ‘wasn’t expecting’ to know that one day he would be able to do things when no one is watching. Thus, this shows that he always expects to have someone looking at every decision he makes for the past fifty- five years. But this made us question: how does he know he was being watched by everyone? This is because it is merely an illusion McHenry has created to himself because all he wants is to fit in.
“So 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 or maybe a little more” (32). Canty uses repetition of the word ‘learned’, implies that McHenry acts the way he does is due to how he was raised and taught. As mentioned previously, the protagonist is a Christian and is expected to be presented as a Christian man. Christianity shapes the way he behaves and acts. Subsequently, it raises the question: Would he be a different person and act differently if he never ‘learned’ how to please others? “He get along with people. It was a way through” (32). The key phrase in this quote is ‘a way through’; it implies an escape from others’ invisible surveillance, for McHenry to go through the day by day activities and fit into the society with others. This is simply the act of putting on a mask to hide his true self.
Everyone fears the unknown. Hence, for McHenry the unknown is ‘being himself’; to act like how he naturally would, to say what is on his mind and to do what he likes, things he would do if his friends and family know. After his time at the massage parlor, he is understandably confused and anxious as he thinks to himself: “What if this was something beautiful that he had shut himself off from his whole life? What if they were wrong, the watchers? Maybe there was really nothing bad with this had he been mistaken his whole life?”. (38) Canty uses the phrase “he had shut himself” to emphasizes that McHenry is the one who shut the door to ‘the unknown’. This makes the protagonist wonders if the unknown was “something beautiful” and “nothing bad”.
There is a downside to everything we do in life, so what is the opportunity cost of McHenry doing things to please others and fit in? “But just in himself, he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. He wasn’t stealing tenderness from anybody or spending someone else’s money. On the other hand, he knew he wouldn’t want to get caught doing this. So, that was something. But he couldn’t figure out who was being hurt.” (38) From this quote, McHenry is certain that somebody is hurt but “he couldn’t figure out who”. he does know who was being hurt. Canty uses the words “figure out” to place emphasis on McHenry actively and eagerly look for the answer to his concern. What he did was going to massage parlor, “he wasn’t stealing tenderness from anybody”, he goes there to please himself sexual so who would he be hurting? He knows it was not his parents, not Marnie (his wife) nor was it his daughter and friends. The person he hurts was himself. The pain comes from himself, due to refusing from doing what he desires. After fifty- five years, it was the first time McHenry did something for himself. Deep down inside, he must know he always wanted this; in the end, while he was too busy pleasing everyone, he did not realize by doing so he was hurting himself.
In a short period, the protagonist drastically changes. So, what make McHenry finally change? What made him decide to live the way he wants and does what he please? Five years after the death of his wife, Marnie, perhaps he finally realizes that what was holding him back from living life to its fullest is his significant other. After finally explored what makes him happy, going to the massage parlor, it hits McHenry that he “was not an old man” and “whatever had switched off when Marnie got sick had gotten switched back on again somehow” (34). One of the thing that gets “switched off” when one gets old is their sexual desire. What he desperately craves is the mental and sexual satisfactions that he had hardly felt in the previous fifty years or so. Ever since Marnie starting to get sick through cancer, his crave for sex was never satisfied. The thoughts of Marnie, the guilt of doing anything with someone else unconsciously stop him. In some way, even when Marnie is gone, her image still prevents her husband from doing what he wants. The obligation to be loyal, deriving from the Marnie’s image, that’s what kept McHenry from taking down the mask. However, it wasn’t just the five years after McHenry’s wife passed away that she affected him, but It was when they were together as well. “Even when Marnie there was something furtive, always in the dark” (38). The word ‘furtive’ is used to point out the thing that is hidden in the marriage is driven by guilt. This “furtive” idea or object that he kept from her was the fact that he wants a sexual life that she cannot offer him. And, as mentioned above, a Christian’s obligation is to be loyal was forced upon him has stopped him from finding a way to satisfy his sexual needs. In one of McHenry’s flashback: “That one time they went to Mexico, just the two of them. It was a glimpse of something. But they could never quite bring it home. Fucking, he thought” (38). The word ‘fucking’ is a strong and informal slang that a man like McHenry would never think about. However, it was appeared in his thoughts because that’s what he truly wants in his life. He does not want it to always be appropriate when it comes to his sexual desire. It feels wrong to him, for having these thoughts and feelings after. The longer he ignores his own needs, the more he was going to regret. When he thinks back about Marnie: “The sadness again, at the secrecy and fear that had kept them from having a bright life” (41). This ‘secrecy’ is his true desire but the ‘fear’ of doing something against his marriage had stopped him from living life to its fullest. The relationship between McHenry and Marnie had not been ideal and satisfying when they never express what they truly want from one another.
All in all, McHenry is a selfless character who never does anything for himself, and putting what others’ judgement above his own desires. He never does what he likes because that is what he learned to do, fears the unknown, and had not always opened up to his wife. It took her death and another five years for McHenry to realize that he needs the mental satisfaction from doing things without being judged, and the body satisfaction by having a woman fulfilling his needs.
Canty, Kevin. “Happy Ending.” The Best American Short Stories T.C. Boyle, 2015. Print