When it Happens by Margaret Atwood

In When it Happens by Margaret Atwood we have the theme of fear, isolation, connection, control, conflict and struggle. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Atwood may be exploring the theme of fear. Mrs Burridge appears to live her life in fear. She is isolated from the word and she has no real visitors to her home. It is just her and Frank and Frank appears to be more concerned with living his life outdoors while Mrs Burridge is firmly fixed indoors. If anything there is a sense of separation between Mr Burridge and Frank. Though connected as husband and wife they don’t really communicate on a level that one would expect a husband and wife to communicate. It may be a case that both are rooted in their beliefs and as such do not have very much to say to one another. Frank seems to pawn off any suggestions that Mrs Burridge has. Which may leave some critics to suggest that Frank is not really treating Mrs Burridge as an equal or as someone that he really needs to listen to. If anything Frank may feel has though he is in control of the relationship based solely on the fact that he is a man.

The element of control continues throughout the story but takes on a very different form. Mrs Burridge knows or senses that a calamity or disaster is pending and she attempts to control her environment. Something that she does independently of Frank. This is noticeable when she hides the shotgun from Frank and prepares some provisions (in her mind) that she feels she will need to ride out whatever it is that might happen. Some critics suggest that Mrs Burridge is afraid of a nuclear war occurring but it is difficult to say for sure. All she knows is that she will never really know what has happened because all communications will be cut off. Something which would further suggest the idea of isolation. It is also interesting that Mrs Burridge has planned her escape, though doesn’t actually go through with it. This would suggest that self-preservation is important to Mrs Burridge. She may be fifty-one and have children who rarely see her but she still feels as though she has something to live for. Even if she is beat in her present environment. This may be important as Mrs Burridge is being practical. She knows that if anything happens, Frank will be called to help, and she will be left alone. To fend for herself.

If anything Mrs Burridge is showing an inner strength and not being overly sentimental about what she may or may not lose should something awful occur. Though some critics might suggest that Mrs Burridge is acting selfishly the reality is all she is doing is ensuring her own safety. There is nothing else that she can do (for anyone) apart for herself. There is also a sense that Mrs Burridge due to her age feels disconnected from the other women in the town. It is as though they have lived their lives separately with Mrs Burridge preferring when she can to produce home made goods while the other women in town seem to favour ready-made food. This too could be important as Mrs Burridge unlike the women in the town remembers the Great Depression. She knows what it is like to struggle and she most definitely in her mind is struggling at the moment. A struggle that may be more heightened by the lack of visitors to Mrs Burridge’s home. She may not necessarily be up to date with what is happening and her sense of struggle may not necessarily be justified. Though it is important to remember that Mrs Burridge thinks differently to others.

She would rather be safe than sorry though at the same time she cannot see it in her mind to release the animals beyond the yard. Something which will only attract unwelcome visitors should the emergency Mrs Burridge’s senses coming actually occur. In many ways Mrs Burridge is losing touch with reality but it may not necessarily her own fault. Her only means of finding out what is happening (TV and Radio) is playing music. Something which rightly or wrongly is a hint to Mrs Burridge that something bad is going to occur. Her relationship with Frank is one-sided. She asks him a question and depending on his mood he either answers the question or he doesn’t. Mrs Burridge appears to be driven by fear. Whether it is rational or irrational is left to each individual reader to decide. Some may feel that Mrs Burridge has too much time on her hands to think about something awful happening. While others might suggest she is better of being safe than sorry. Either way Mrs Burridge wants to be prepared for any event, good or bad, that might happen.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "When it Happens by Margaret Atwood." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 26 Sep. 2018. Web.


  • I found this story very unorthodox and gripping. The most interesting part is that the whole scenario of survival, harsh circumstances and tragedy plays out in her head while she is making a grocery list! Complete with all the sights, sounds, taste and smells. The author has achieved an interesting contrast between her thoughts and what is actually happening around her. She wishes to be prepared for every circumstance and have control over her surroundings because of the struggle she faced in the past with the Great Depression and the war. She is trapped in that experience and has not let it go so she dreads the recurrence of those hardships.

  • It is quite interesting.

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