When It Happens

moody landscape for when it happens

Margaret Atwood

What is ‘It’ and when will it happen? The mystery of those questions provides the continuous undertow of dread in Atwood’s story. On the surface the story is mundane: it starts with a woman making a batch of pickles and ends with her completing a shopping list with ‘Cheese’. Yet even the focus on food is important, as it refers to food insecurity. The pickles use up a crop of tomatoes that is threatened by ‘a killer frost’ and the cheese is listed as a substitute ‘because of the price of meat.’ In already straightened circumstances, Mrs Burridge is preparing for disaster.

Time and Mortality

The third person narration focalises Mrs Burridge’s perspective throughout. Atwood’s choice creates an unsettling effect, as following her thoughts and views brings the reader close to the protagonist, but she is also detached by the formality of the name ‘Mrs Burridge’. Atwood gives her husband Frank a first name, but not his wife. The relationship between Mrs Burridge and her husband is also presented as humdrum, a comfortable co-existence after years of marriage and the departure of grown-up children. Atwood uses a number of time references to illustrate a sense of habit – ‘every year’, ‘she has always made two batches’, ‘he’ll do it again’, ‘during every commercial’, ‘it used to annoy’. The reader also recognises, though, that Mrs Burridge has a sense of the limitations of future time; she watches her husband ‘with a kind of sadness’ because ‘she once thought their life together would go on forever but she has come to realize that this is not the case.’ Here is Mrs Burridge’s sense of age and mortality, the inevitability of decline and death. As the story develops, that awareness of the oncoming end is made more tangible with growing hints of some kind of imminent disaster.

Mr and Mrs Burridge

The relationship shows a mixture of affection, antagonism and boredom. Mrs Burridge’s voice is described as ‘angular, prodding, metallic’ while her husband’s is ‘methodical’. The adjectives for Mrs Burridge suggest harshness and aggression, while Frank sounds steady. There is, however, some fondness here. Mrs Burridge is ‘teasing’ Frank for being a little overweight. Atwood tells us that she does not ‘feel like’ it, but does so ‘because he would miss it if she stopped.’ Affection has become routine, but it still exists. Mrs Burridge admits that Frank is ‘pig-headed’ but also that he ‘is a kind and likeable man’. As in any long-term relationship, Frank has made Mrs Burridge ‘angry so many times’ and she is frustrated that he has not managed ‘to fix the stairs’ despite being asked ‘a million times’. Atwood shows, though, that she watches him with care, noting that he walks ‘slower than he used to, bent forward a little’. She too finds that going up and down to the cellar is ‘not as easy as it used to be’. Atwood presents both of them as ageing; they are middle-aged people who have learned to rub along and accommodate each other.

In Mrs Burridge’s Mind

There is no indication of Frank’s view of the relationship; the reader has everything interpreted through Mrs Burridge’s perspective. While his wife turns over her concerns in her mind, Frank seems free of such worries. The reader is not clear whether he disguises his awareness, is imperceptive and unemotional, or whether indeed the concerns are only a matter of Mrs Burridge’s mind. For the reader, the worries are convincing because they see the story from within Mrs Burridge’s consciousness. It is she who notices that the women in the store have ‘an anxious, closed look, as if they are frightened of something’. It is she who thinks that she might have ‘to leave suddenly’. It is she who is privately convinced that all the people are ‘waiting… for whatever it is to happen.’ Interestingly, Atwood adds here the sentence fragment ‘Whether they realize it or not’, which does invite the consideration of the possibility that the story explores Mrs Burridge’s psychology rather than an imminent cataclysmic event.

Tenses Create Tension

Atwood makes the idea of a brewing disaster convincing for the reader with subtle control of tense. The sense of immediacy is created by the story being narrated in the present tense rather than the conventional past tense. It places the reader in the midst of the developing action. It also creates an openness and uncertainty of the ending, as the action is not yet complete, as it is with any past tense narration.

When Mrs Burridge projects her fears, considering what might happen, Atwood uses the future tense, for example in ‘it will simply become quieter… She will have an odd feeling… she will notice the planes are no longer flying’. The gradual societal decline is also convincing and the lack of certainty is unnerving. While she can project some aspects of oncoming disaster, she does not know ‘what will happen next’; she ‘expects’ certain events will follow and cannot identify the anonymous ‘they’ who are in some kind of control. It is in the middle of these expectations in Mrs Burridge’s mind that Atwood slips back into the present tense. The narrative moves from the future (‘Mrs Burridge will realize’) through her expectations (‘She expects it will be the gas and oil’), to the present (‘They are trying to keep things looking normal’). Atwood then uses the present tense throughout Mrs Burridge’s mental story of what might happen. The reader then follows these events in the same tense as the main story; they give a graphic account of the collapse of organised society, as ‘telephone wires are blown down’, ‘men begin to appear on the back road’, the Burridges ‘do not want to waste the little gasoline they still have left’, ‘the electricity goes off’ and the ‘radio stations…give out nothing but soothing music’. By so subtly shifting the tense back into the main narrative mode of the story, Atwood suggests to the reader that these events are actually happening rather than being a product of Mrs Burridge’s imagination.

This effect is accentuated when her projection becomes detailed in the section beginning ‘One morning…’ The detail of ‘thick and black’ smoke rising sounds actual and the specificity of ‘Fifteen minutes later’ creates a sense of urgency. The nine paragraphs depict decisions, abandonment and escape as Mrs Burridge ‘takes one last look around the house’, ‘unchains’ the dogs and ‘walks north in her heavy boots’, into the countryside, carrying her gun. It is a style of post-apocalyptic writing which was to be picked up much later in, for example, Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 novel The Road. Like that novel too, danger peaks when Mrs Burridge meets strange men, whose ‘eyes have fastened’ on her gun.

Real or Unreal?

The end of the penultimate paragraph and the final one remind the reader that the spiralling, terrifying events they have just read are in Mrs Burridge’s mind. Atwood confirms that the events are ‘pictures’ and that Mrs Burridge has none ‘beyond this point.’ In the last paragraph she breaks her daydreaming to add to her shopping list. There is another reminder in the fifth paragraph before the end, where Atwood slips in a reference to ‘lemon meringue pie for Sunday’ and ‘Shortening’ is added to the list, but in the pace of the narrative at that point it is easy to overlook.

The effect is so striking, that the reader may well be expecting such events to happen, just as Mrs Burridge does, when she ‘goes to the kitchen door’ to look out in the last line. The sense of an all-pervading but unspoken and unseen threat which sustains  the story is significant when we consider that Atwood wrote it during the Cold War, the long nuclear stand-off between America and the USSR. It was written fifteen years after the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the two superpowers the closest they have ever been to nuclear confrontation. It is quite possible that Atwood is reflecting some of that geopolitical tension in her story.


Narrative methods to consider:
  • Focalised third person narration
  • Structure
  • Tense
  • Mystery/the unexplained
Read more:

Blog post about Margaret Atwood’s writing

Blog post about Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories