Avishek Paul 1631897
Contemporary American Fiction: 603-102-MQ 00008
October 23rd, 2017
We force ourselves to believe that happiness and pleasure are too difficult to obtain. In the short story “Happy Endings” by Kevin Canty, the protagonist McHenry, a husband, a father, and a worker has lived his life pleasing others, until he is left with nobody but him to appease. In “Happy Endings”, we see that the biggest barrier to happiness and pleasure is ourselves, as expressed using character development.
McHenry’s lack of pleasure and loneliness comes from himself never going after things that make him happy because of the fear of how people would view him, and the lack of presence from his loved ones. We see in the passage that McHenry lived a life appeasing other instead of himself.
He did what people expected him to or maybe a little more. He always tried for more… He got along with people… He learned to look like he was working. He learned to act like a father when his daughter was around, to look like a husband when Marnie needed a husband. (Canty 32).
He lived a life trying his best to impress others and make others happy. We also see McHenry became a husband and father for the sake of being one. Normally one would desire to become a husband and a father, out of romantic, or familial feelings but for McHenry’s case, it was done because that is what most people were doing and what was expected of him, so it was considered the “right” thing to do. Before Marnie’s death, he was very concerned about how people would view him. So much so that it burned in his head in a way that made him believe that committing certain actions (like not raising a family, or drowning yourself in pleasure through certain means) are morally-wrong, and that people in his life would judge him for it. Although despite the wrong reasons, getting along people and having a family did take away any feelings of loneliness but in the long run he will not be satisfied with the lack of pleasure in his life.
His relationship with Marnie failed to give him any self satisfaction. We see that McHenry felt more negative about his relationship as he might have felt trapped and suffocated by it. “Marnie had gone five years before a pancreatic cancer that burned so swiftly through her that McHenry never felt it until she was buried. Still sometimes it felt to him that the death never happened, an unreal, ugly dream” (Canty 32). I question if the unreal, ugly dream was referring to how he felt during Marnie’s death or it referred to the entire timespan of Marnie and McHenry being together. I believe that the relationship may have been so dull that it held back McHenry’s will to pursue happiness, leading to that very ambiguous thought. He spent so long in this numb and emotion-less state of mind that it all became a blurry reality unable to differentiate what is happening and what is real. Because he never truly wanted to play that role, he just may have not liked his entire relationship with Marnie, not that he dislikes Marnie as a person. He became a husband for the sake of being one, but the satisfaction of being a husband is something that failed to give him happiness.
With all the things that are happening to him, it was taking a toll on his mind. We see that McHenry is getting more agitated an sexually frustrated, “…if he didn’t get laid pretty soon he was going to go out of his mind…McHenry was not an old man, not yet, and whatever had switched off when Marnie got sick had gotten switched back on again somehow” (Canty 33). His sexual desires have been suppressed for a very long time, and this sexual deprivation is consuming him and will eventually break him out of his self-conscious shell of emptiness and loneliness. We see his stress, loneliness and his primal desires of sex and sense of longing is emerging, and he is questioning if it is right to relinquish those feelings. “But it stuck in his mind. You could just pay for it and nobody was watching. McHenry lived with these thoughts for two or three months…” (Canty 34). You can still see that he is very hesitant and thinking thoroughly about his decision of going to the massage parlor despite having no one to judge him for his actions.
McHenry finally gets a taste of his self-fulfilling action, and he sees that people care more about pleasure then they do about their purity. When he visited the massage parlor, we see that the burdens of his worries and frustrations were finally replaced with pure bodily pleasure,
… it was very nice. He didn’t know till now how many troubles he was carrying in his body. He felt light and free… he felt the pressure on unexpected places, as if his liver and his testicles and even his eyes were all connected somehow to places in his feet and he had not known this (Canty 35).
His body felt alive, and had not realized how numb and dead he was. Only having to feel nothing but your stress and sexual-frustrations being worked away (with the added bonus of a “happy ending”) was very refreshing for McHenry. So much so that he went back a second time, but with more confidence and comfort doing so. We still see that McHenry was still debating about the morality of his decision, but he walked one step closer to his uncage self.
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…What if this was something beautiful that he had shut himself off from his whole life? What if they were wrong, the watchers?… Fucking he thought. He had been using that word his whole life as a curse. What if it instead turned out to be a blessing? (Canty 38)
This is a pivotal moment as for the first time he is questioning the morality of sexual pleasure. If no one is getting hurt and if this is something that feels amazing, then why would should it be wrong? Should it not be something to embrace? We see that those questions are answered when he goes to a Christian Singles group meeting and learns the nature of the people by talking to Adele. “…everybody else has dated almost everyone else. And by dated, I don’t mean dated… We’re all Christian and we’re all single but we’re not always both at the same time” (Canty 40). It does not matter if following your sexual instincts are right or wrong, people still do it and will not stop pleasing themselves sexually. When he was enjoying his time birdwatching with Adele, we see him realizing why people did so, “Okay, McHenry thought. This was worth it. All this beautiful life, this excess generosity… how they mate for life” (Canty 42). He finally finds out that this is a beautiful part of life, and it does not matter if it is wrong as it is only natural for humans to pursue a life of pleasure because they will feel happy. We’re too busy enjoying the happy and pleasurable moments in life to be concern with morality and following the rules. It is worth breaking social norms for such things if it makes you happy.
With this new-found realization, he chooses to follow and embrace this ideology. When he goes to the massage parlor, we finally see him acting for himself confidently,
A test of some kind, McHenry thought. Not what he supposed to want or what somebody else would like him to want-he wasn’t trying to please anybody but himself. So what did he want himself? Nobody was watching. Why not? (Canty 43).
The difference between his third visit and the past visits is that he is absolutely worry free and not self conscience. He can finally go to that massage parlor and say confidently that no one is watching me, and I’ll make myself happy. Where as the past visits, he still had that stress of being watched even though there was no one. Experiencing this free and joyful mind, we see that he realizes that if he were to continue like this, his life would be way different then before. “Somebody might see him. It didn’t matter. His life was about to change” (Canty 43). He does not care anymore of what others think of him, because he is so happy enjoying himself, and with this bird-like freedom, his future self well experience happiness and pleasure. His life is going to change for the better.
The story is about McHenry’s meaningful journey of self-fulfillment. I love this story because it can resonate with many of us. Like McHenry, we think that obtaining joy in life is too difficult because there are too man barriers in life, like how McHenry’s obstacle was selfless satisfaction of others. But really, we are the ones that let those barriers stop us. We limit ourselves to think such things are not possible. But in reality, they are possible, we just need to believe in ourselves and strive for them.
Canty, Kevin. “Happy ending”. The Best American Short Stories 2015, edited by T.C. Boyle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 32-43
This is a good review. You do a lot well here. You give a nice description of the development of McHenry’s character. You take us on a nice step by step journey of his evolution. Everything in this essay seems like it is in the right place. It’s well organized. And, your writing as well is interesting and engaging. I get the sense of a human being speaking to me. It’s meets the criteria of being warm and genuine. You’ve really gone deeply into this story, and you manage to make an original and thoughtful statement about it. Good work.