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That man begins dying on the moment the first breath is taken at birth is a fact of life and is perhaps one of its greatest ironies. How well life is lived is a conscious decision everyone has to make throughout the journey from its beginning to life’s inevitable end. In Happy Endings, Margaret Atwood (1983) tells a story about love and sexuality in a satirical manner where the characters are portrayed as stereotypes of the male and female genders. In contrast, a poem by Michael Ondaatje (1982) called “The Cinnamon Peeler” which takes a more sublime interpretation on the matter and the poem’s beautifully written prose emits a feeling of warmth that makes one want to snuggle in front of a fireplace with a loved one. This essay intends to conduct an interpretational and critical analysis on Atwood’s short story and Ondaatje’s poem by focusing on the issues of love and sexuality and that of life and death embedded in these literary pieces. The diverging views of the authors on these issues without a doubt will make interesting comparison and analysis.
Happy Endings takes a different approach to storytelling by allowing the reader to make a choice on the events and circumstances of the story such that if a happy ending is preferred then scenario A should be chosen. Scenario A though is implied as boring and inconsequential by the author and even the characters are bland and forgettable. As the reader reads on the other scenarios then that is where the plot thickens and the boring characters John and Mary take on more shape and depth. In scenario B, Atwood presents the first stereotype on love and sexuality between the genders: unreciprocated love. The tone also changes with the scenario and the author’s choice of words is reminiscent of her angst against the male ego and its insensibilities to women. John is portrayed as a character who takes advantage of Mary to sate his sexual urges and nothing else underneath the physiological gratification. Mary though is in love with John and tries her best to be deserving of John’s love. Her efforts to win John’s love prove to be futile as the story proceeds and the reader will find another act that is typical of love affairs: betrayal. John betrays Mary who could have seen this coming when John complained of her cooking. Fault finding is a universal sign when a relationship is headed south and is typical of both genders to do so. As the story continues the reader will find Mary, a true romantic perhaps, committing suicide and hoping John will come to her rescue at the very end. Mary’s hopes we unfounded though and the story ends tragically. The ending though is not tragic, it is actually expected and as pointed out by the author in a caveat towards the end of the story, the ending is similar: John and Mary will die. In scenario C, the story takes and interesting twist and John reemerges as a more developed character. Here, he is portrayed and as an older man married to Madge and is having an illicit affair with Mary which is again stereotypical of relationships. The scenario also introduces a new character, James, a free spirited motorcycle riding young man who has a fabulous record collection and Mary is in love with him. One day, they both got stoned jumped to bed and John found them in an uncompromising situation so he gets his gun, shoots them and then he turns the gun to himself. The circumstances were different in this scenario but ends just as tragically nonetheless.
The story continues with other possibilities in Madge’s life like meeting a suitable man after her period of mourning named Fred. They get along well, married eventually and ended up like scenario A only with different names. The author makes a point regarding the interchangeability of characters implying that this could happen to anyone and the ending remains the same. This is also highlighted in the succeeding scenarios where Fred and Madge’s house was brought down by a tidal wave but the couple survived the calamity and the one where Fred has a bad heart and the story ends inevitably the same. Atwood also suggested that the reader may become as adventurous as possible and portray John as a revolutionist and Mary a spy and yet the end will be just the same.
Happy Endings tells the reader that what is important in a story just as much as in life is neither the beginning nor the ending but what is in the middle that matters most. It is the span of time in between the moment man takes his first and last breath that matters. Atwood though shared that beginnings are fun but true connoisseurs, those who has a passion for life favor what is in between because this is the part where it is hardest to do anything with because of its unpredictability and constantly changes with every decision that people makes. Atwood’s Happy Ending may have a rather cynical approach on the subject of love and sexuality and of life and death but it seems to work rather well in conveying the message of the story to its readers. The straightforward manner on how the story was told and the informal tone and use of words reiterates the message that in order to live life well, man should roll with the punches and learn to take risks and not play safe like a happy ending would. Finally, Atwood reiterates that its not only the what, what, what that matters; man must also try the how and the why. If and then, who knows? Life will end just the same anyway.
Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler” takes on love and sexuality through symbolism and sexual overtones throughout the poem. The inspiration is quite obvious, cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka and the author is of Sri Lankan descent. Cinnamon at one time in history is said to be a commodity as valuable as gold. It is not the same in the present though but the scent of cinnamon is as distinctive at it is now and a century ago. This is what the poem is all about, a play of the senses and sensuality. Unlike the short story tackled earlier, the poem delves not much into life or death but love of the possessive kind. It provides an insight to the authors psyche as to the time when the poem was written coinciding with his separation from his wife.
The first stanza of the poem pertains to sexuality evidenced as evidenced by the words such as ‘ride your bed’ and living a mark on the pillows as well as on the woman’s body who would reek of his scent and even if the she bathes it would still be recognizable. These lines reiterate the author’s message of conveying possessive love to one’s object of desire. The third stanza is also full of sexuality and explores the female anatomy from the poet’s description of the upper thigh and the line ‘neighbor to your hair’ which pertains to the woman’s pubic area. Likewise, this overwhelming physical attraction is symbolized in the fourth stanza where the scent was masked with ‘saffron and smoking tar’ else the woman’s mother and brothers will take notice of the desire. The next few stanzas take reference to a past from the cinnamon peeler’s memory. This can be interpreted as the author passing through memory lane on some experiences shared with his wife. This is symbolized in the poem on the lines ‘left with no trace, as if not spoken to in an act of love, as if wounded without the pleasure of scar’. The poem ends with the lines ‘I am the cinnamon peeler’s wife. Smell me’. A gesture that could just as well mean that the woman will forever be left with the scent and will forever be his.
The short story ‘Happy Endings’ and the poem ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife’ pays tribute to our humanity and our penchant for love and our sexuality. Man by nature is born with these emotional and physiological desires and it is his nature to be seeking both. What is more profound though is that man is aware of the possible repercussions and chooses to be just the same. Is it because man knows that existence is limited and the inevitable is just a matter of time?
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