In Jayne Anne Phillips’ flash fiction piece “Happy,” a woman’s conflicting emotions for a man who clearly loves her, but who also has his own doubts, keep her from accepting his love and giving love in return. The woman knows exactly how she ought to feel about the man who loves her dearly, but she refuses to open up to him. She considers love a tangible concept that has “sank into itself like a hole and curled up content” (218). The piece continues with her anxiety growing like “a bread of desire rising in her stomach” (218). The feelings are present, but again, she will not acknowledge their existence. The readers are given a glimpse into the man’s emotions and how “inside him an acrobat rumbled over death” (218). The piece ends with her sobbing over his beauty, suggesting her realization of needing to let him go, but knowing she cannot or will not. Another interpretation of the story could be, the fear of settling prevents real love from blossoming.
Phillips’ “Happy” is about how fear can make love stagnant even when the person is invested and naïve to the other’s reservations.
Phillips’ use of personifying abstract concepts is what drew me to her piece. She takes universal emotions—happiness and love—and fuels them with humanistic dimensions:
Surrounded by the blur of her own movements, the thought of making him happy was very dear to her. She moved it [the happy] from place to place, a surprise she never opened. (218)
She directly references the happiness as the missing piece that will link the pair together in a harmony of love. The only obstacle in their path is her inability or possible refusal to explore love because of her selfishness and doubts. Perhaps she is stuck in her selfish desires or trapped by her fears of rejection or settling for the wrong person. She sees love and happiness both as a toy, and not an affection that needs nurturing. She appears to have already defined her feelings and further labels those missing emotions: happiness and love. The two are pawns in her game of love, powerless to her ultimate decision in the end, showing she is in no hurry to ease this man’s pains of unrequited affections.
The author chooses to personify these particular abstract terms because they are elusive to all audiences. Different definitions of love include: when someone else’s happiness becomes your happiness, then it’s love, or when you allow your guards to fall, then you are able to accept love. Phillips’ approach is a mixture of how love is another’s happiness, and how a person’s insecurities and fears can still prevent love from overcoming those inadequacies. Then there is the idea that there are those who refuse to let go of love or let someone go because the fear of settling kicks in. Someone who receives love may not have reciprocal emotions for that person, but the thought of being alone outweighs all other emotions. She has been toying with happiness and love, but never gives any because she believes she can do better than her current companion. Then again, she harbors the uncertainty or, “what if I cannot do better? What if this is it?”
Through her uncertainty, even she cannot deny that even the mere presence of a person who loves is enough to show how love works. Phillips writes that “when she lay down with the man she loved and didn’t, the man opened and opened” (218). The quote makes it evident that all that matters to the man is that his woman is beside him. It does not matter that she cannot fully love him in return, yet. But he, too battles with the lack of emotion from her: his inner feelings are at war with one another over his love for his woman and the realization she will never love him as much in return, or will only love him because she cannot find anyone better.