“When It Happens” Summary: Short Story by Margaret Atwood

“When It Happens” is a short story by Margaret Atwood from her 1977 collection Dancing Girls and Other Stories. It about a fifty-one-year old woman, Mrs. Burridge, who feels a disaster is impending. She doesn’t believe her husband or any one else will be able to help her; she’ll have to survive on her own. She imagines what it will be like when this emergency happens. Here’s a summary of “When It Happens.”

“When It Happens” Summary

When It Happens Summary by Margaret Atwood
“When It Happens” Summary

Hearing there would be frost, Mrs. Burridge went out at night in the cold and picked all the green tomatoes she could see, over three bushels. She asked her husband, Frank, to carry them in for her, even though she can do it. He likes being asked.

She makes pickled green tomatoes, using the jars she had from last year. She fills them all up and still has lots of tomatoes left. There’s a strike on at the factory and no one can get more jars. She hears the growers were hit by the frost and prices will go up.

Frank always says she makes too much, but he always eats all the pickled green tomatoes, seemingly without noticing. During every commercial during the hockey game he gets a slice of bread with it.

Mrs. Burridge doesn’t mind the crumbs he leaves everywhere and doesn’t like teasing him about his weight because she knows they won’t always be together.

She’s made her own pickles since 1952 when she first got her garden. Most other women gave it up after the war, but she didn’t. Frank makes more money than he ever has, but they seem to have less to spend. Prices are going up. They could sell the farm, but she has things arranged the way she likes.

Mrs. Burridge stands looking out at the back door, something she does several times a day now. She expects to see something burning. Frank asked her about it once and she lied about hearing a dog barking. Although Frank’s made her angry many times and is pig-headed, he’s kind and likable.

She brings the pickle jars down to the cellar where everything is neatly arranged. She used to be comforted at seeing all the stored food, but not anymore; if she has to leave it will be too heavy to take any with her. Going up the stairs is harder than it used to be and her knee still hurts from when she fell six years ago. Frank didn’t fix the step even though she asked him to.

“When It Happens” Summary, Cont’d

Seeing Frank walk to the barn like an old man makes her realize he can’t protect her. She’s noticed this same look on the faces of the other women in town. Everyone seems to be helplessly waiting for something to happen.

She’s been wanting to ask Frank to show her how to use the guns, but she can’t because he’ll tease her and want to know why. She can’t give the real reason—he might be dead or gone. There could be a war.

Mrs. Burridge makes her shopping list for tomorrow when they’ll go into town. She plans the day so she can sit at times because her feet swell. She’s distracted by the things in her kitchen and the rest of the house that she’ll have to leave behind, gifts from family and heirlooms. She thinks of her girls and hopes they won’t have babies; it’s a bad time.

Mrs. Burridge wishes she could plan for what’s going to happen, but no one really knows. She imagines it getting really quiet—the planes will stop flying, the noise from the highway will die down, and the television won’t tell them much due to censorship. Then, the gas and oil will stop, but the authorities will try to keep things looking normal. She has Frank bring in the old wood stove from under the barn. He cuts down some dead trees for firewood.

The telephone wires are blown down and no one fixes them. She starts seeing men walking out on the back road, heading north. She stops chaining up the dogs.

Mrs. Burridge takes the shotgun and hides it behind the barn. Frank has the twenty-two, so he won’t notice. They conserve their gas. They start eating the chickens, which she hates preparing. Frank once got into turkey farming with a friend, Henry Clarke, and she hated dealing with those birds.

When the electricity goes, Mrs. Burridge will know things are really serious. She expects it will happen when it’s not cold enough outside to preserve the food. All her work will be wasted. She salvages what she can. No one bothers them; she hasn’t even seen the walking men for days. There’s no more television and the radio only plays soothing music.

“When It Happens” Summary, Cont’d

One morning, she and Frank stand at the back door looking at the smoke rising exactly where she expected it to be. She thinks of her children.

Henry Clarke and another neighbor pull up in a truck. Frank gets the twenty-two and says they have to deal with some trouble down the road. He wants the shotgun too, but she pretends not to know where it is. They drive off; she knows he won’t come back.

Mrs. Burridge knows she can’t stay at her house. Young, hungry people will come and fight over it. She puts on warm clothes, gathers what food she can carry and gets the shotgun. She wants to kill the animals the right way but doesn’t know how. She opens their gates.

She adds her toothbrush to her bundle. She pictures her cellar destroyed by those who come. At her kitchen table, she writes “Oatmeal” on her list. She starts walking north with all her gear. She passes the cemetery where her family is buried. The road is empty and she feels a bit foolish. Maybe things aren’t as bad as she thinks. She adds “Shortening” to the list for a pie.

Mrs. Burridge has walked into the evening on the road and it’s unfamiliar. She turns into the forest to hide, eat and rest. She suddenly sees the flicker of a fire with two men at it, and they see her. One of them approaches her smiling, seeing an easy target. They see the gun and want it. She knows to wait until they get close enough before firing.

She knows she’ll have to be fast, but she feels slow and afraid. She’s never killed anything. The images fade away here. You don’t know how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens.

She writes “Cheese” on the list. She gets up to look out the kitchen door.

I hope this “When It Happens” summary was helpful.