The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; published 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Though I’ve not yet read Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, I highly anticipated this novel by English professor Jeffrey Eugenides. The premise intrigued me: Is the 19th-century marriage plot employed by such beloved authors as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Henry James, still useful in today’s modern world, where there is sexual equality, but more divorce and pre-nups and premarital sex? Is it viable in any way? Can modern women even relate to it at all?
The answer from The Marriage Plot is a resounding “no.”
*Those who wish to avoid having the ending spoiled, please read no further.
The heroine, Madeleine Hanna, is an English major who still believes in the books she reads. As Eugenides said in an interview with the Huffington Post, “This book is so much about how reading affects your actual life.” And it is. As a fellow English major, I loved reading Madeleine’s thoughts on tackling Derrida, deconstruction and other criticisms. There’s no doubt about it: People who love reading love reading about reading. Madeleine reads Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, which claims that the notions she has about love she got from the books she read. This deconstruction of love itself leads her to doubt love, but it doesn’t stop her from falling in love with Leonard Bankhead.
Bankhead suffers from manic depression: he goes through bouts of high energy where he feels powerful, he is imbued with charisma, people are drawn to him – but it doesn’t last. He overstays his welcome. People start avoiding him and he becomes desperate, forcing him to do something to try to keep their attention, which usually ends up landing him in the hospital. He must take lithium, but it makes him feel stupid and sluggish. Madeleine dutifully loves him and lives with him, taking care of him through the down and up times. Eugenides’s writing describing Leonard’s mania is wonderful; you begin to see the disturbing logic and coherency in his madness. “His mind felt as if it was fizzing over. Words became other words inside his head, like patterns in a kaleidoscope” (p. 246).
Mitchell is one of Madeleine’s best friends from her freshman and sophomore years of college (and by far my favorite character). He is in love with her, but lets pass an opportunity to possibly be more than just friends with her. Their relationship is never the same; they only see each other every once in a while, though Mitchell never forgets her. He goes to Europe and India with his roommate after graduation in pursuit of spiritual answers to life’s questions. He is drawn to religion, particularly Christianity. I found it very encouraging that Eugenides treats Christianity more kindly than many other writers. Mitchell is open, even “accepting Jesus into his heart” at one point. He reads The Interior Castle by Christian mystic St. Teresa of Avila. He serves in India at one of Mother Teresa’s establishments. He attends Quaker meetings when he returns to the US. When asked in an interview with The Guardian if he is religious, Eugenides said yes, and that young people today are still seeking for the answers that Mitchell seeks. “I don’t think you should be interested in searching for the truth if you don’t think maybe you will find the truth.”
Now, the ending. I’m not going to lie. I had expectations. High ones. My reasons for being disappointed with the ending are entirely personal, not literary. From a literary standpoint, this book is masterful. It fulfills its purpose. It answers the question of whether or not the marriage plot is still viable. The language is bold and moving. I think for the characters it could not have ended in a different way.
However. I am a happily married young twenty-something, and I believe that a lasting marriage is possible. I’m very glad that marriage does not end up being the catch-all solution to Madeleine’s problems – because, of course, marriage isn’t that at all. I won’t get on my soap box, but I will say that you don’t stop living or learning when you get married; you start again in a new way.
The way the book redefines the marriage plot is in this: Leonard and Madeleine get married, but Leonard essentially divorces her because he wants to spare her the pain of being married to someone with a mental disorder. Mitchell returns. Now, in a traditional marriage plot, Mitchell would have come in, rescued Madeleine from her sadness, confessed his undying love and married her (as, for example, happens in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte). But that’s not what happens. Mitchell realizes that Madeleine doesn’t need to get married again right then. She has things she needs to work out for herself, as does he. They go their separate ways. It’s a respectable ending, even if it doesn’t quite provide the hope I was looking for.
Here’s what Eugenides said about it:
“The book is a marriage plot, and yet it isn’t a marriage plot. It doesn’t carry out the conventions at all, and yet there are moments when the reader should care about who Madeleine will choose. So it does operate on both levels.”
Really, I think, this book ends up as a quest plot – the hero(s) and heroine in search of meaning – and they find their problems cannot be answered with “I do.” The quest continues.