Coetzee’s Foe and Atwood’s “"Happy Endings"”
Metafiction, loosely defined as fiction about fiction, provides an intriguing perspective on literature. J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe and Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” are able to provide a commentary on fiction writing while still retaining their own identities. Both authors offer criticism of fiction writing as connected to gender issues, societal expectations, and the process and components of fiction writing itself.
In order to become metafictional, Coetzee and Atwood had to make readers aware of what they were reading. Coetzee, by creating a story in which an author exists as a main character, personifies the act of writing ...view middle of the document...
Their relationship is founded on sex, which has different meanings for Mary and John. Mary, although she admits in finding no pleasure in having sex, wants John to think she does because eventually, as she sees it, John will “come to depend on her and they will get married” (1). In contrast, John has no preconceived notions of marriage and only wishes to please himself in as many ways as possible. In this version, Mary represents the women as an oppressed entity. She is mentally abused, sexually exploited, and feels like she must conform to an image-driven society.
While version C changes the plotline and alters the characters, the theme of gender inequality still endures. In this version, James, not yet ready to settle down, is a free spirit and spends much of his time “away on his motorcycle, being free” (2). Young Mary, confined by society’s expectations, is aware that “freedom isn’t the same for girls” (2). Her only sense of freedom and independence comes from giving her body to John to please him. Yet Mary is ultimately killed by John for sleeping with James. In essence, she is punished for expressing her sexual freedom.
In Foe, Susan struggles to to tell her story. She has a narrative which, lacking an audience, is reduced to nothing. She is also repeatedly put down and turned away by Foe, who dismisses her unconventional role as a woman. Susan then embodies the struggle of women to express themselves. Her story becomes manipulated by Foe and ultimately told from a man’s perspective. Susan represents the silent voice of women in literature, especially in earlier centuries. Although women had things to say, society refused to be an audience.
Along with gender issues, both Atwood and Coetzee directly address authors in their stories. In "Happy Endings", Atwood’s final paragraphs serve as a sharp criticism of fiction writers. She dismisses plots as inconsequential in the face of true meaning, describing them as “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what” (3). She then ends the story with a direct challenge to authors: “Now try How and Why” (3). Sure, one can write a story with solely plot; Atwood did just that in her preceding story versions. There was no character development, no specific descriptions, no action, and, most importantly, no meaning. But it is safe to say that the readers of those stories feel unsatisfied and disappointed, that those stories are not good fiction. By creating "Happy Endings", Atwood is suggesting that true fiction, especially short stories, contains meaning behind the words. Good fiction means rounded and well-developed characters, specific detail, and incorporates the “how” and the “why” into the plot.
Like Atwood, Coetzee emphasizes the importance of meaning in relation to the author. The way in which he shows it, however, is different from that of Atwood. By having an author as a character in Foe, Coetzee is able to discuss the intricacies and sources of fiction writing in a way which...