June 23

The Marriage Plot

marriageplotAlthough it has spent a solid couple of years languishing on my bedside table, I finally picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot a few days ago.  If I’ve done anything else the last few days, it has only been reluctantly, since this is a book I have despaired putting down and parting with, even if it was only a few hours before I could resume again.

I’m sad I’m so late to this party because I desperately wish I could step into a seminar or a book club to discuss; I have such conflicting feelings about the novel and long to hear what others have to say, too.  At base, I loved it.  The prose is skilled and smart, the characters layered and believable, and the observations incisive.  It adds to the allure that the heroine is all too familiar:  an English major attempting to navigate both her love life and her career aspirations — a devotee to Jane Austen, in fact, who determines that she would like to go to graduate school and be a Victorianist.  She becomes an English major “for the purest and dullest of reasons:  because she loved to read.”  She arranges her books not just by author but by publication date (as do I).  So it cuts eerily close to home, even regurgitating things I passionately felt at various points during my graduate school career.   For instance:

“She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity:  the writer.  Madeleine had the feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature.  They wanted to demote the author.  They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions.  They wanted the reader to be the main thing.  Because they were readers.

Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius.  She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t get to herself.  She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it.  When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem:  namely, clarity.

While I didn’t necessarily draw the same conclusions about why semioticians held the theories they did, the rest of the description is so spot-on that it gave me that alarming discomfort I feel as a reader when I, who like to go around believing I am a complex individual with thoughts and feelings unique to my experiences, have been precisely and cuttingly pegged.

For all these initial insights into Madeleine’s thoughts and feelings about literature, the novel seems to lose interest in her intellectual life, becoming far more invested in her friend Mitchell’s growing interest in religious studies and his own spirituality and her boyfriend Leonard’s struggle with manic depression.  The free indirect narration rotates through the three main characters, and Madeleine’s perspective dominates the narrative, but her thoughts are entirely subsumed by her relationship with Leonard, her future with Leonard, and Leonard’s prospects.  Although we learn that she is working on an article and reapplying to graduate schools after being rejected by Yale the first time around, very little of her musings upon literature make their way into the novel.  We know because of the plot that she is reading and writing and thinking about things other than Leonard, but that interiority, the substance of her own analysis of marriage plots in Victorian novel and the marriage plot as it applies to her own life, is entirely absent.

Which was the chief way in which the novel, and especially the ending, were disappointing for me.  I hate giving spoilers, even for a novel now a few years old, so I will withhold what exactly transpires at the end.  But simplistically speaking, the ending should have been a rather happy one for a feminist reader, which I consider myself without pause to be.  And yet I closed the book with a furrowed brow.  The ending may be perfectly right and proper for a book about romantic commitments set in the late 20th century, but it lacked the triumph, the joy, the liberation that I wanted to feel in that moment of renunciation and independence.  Instead it felt hollow and unearned.  Could I imagine a future for Madeleine with a character who had been deeply and thoughtfully drawn for four hundred pages?  Yes.  Could I imagine a future for Madeleine poring over Victorian literature, researching obscure topics, writing scholarship?  Not as well — and obviously not because women aren’t capable of that.  Madeleine does these things, so we’re told, but we as readers don’t get to live that experience with her, don’t get to glimpse what captures her imagination and why, don’t get to meditate upon meaning alongside her.  I needed to know Madeleine as a character so much more in that respect to feel the satisfaction and enthusiasm we are, I think, meant to feel upon the book’s ending.  William Deresiewicz in his New York Times review, brilliantly articulates this same complaint:

… Madeleine is the one character who does discover her vocation and, even more ironically, it’s to be a feminist scholar of the Victorian novel. Yet despite the topic’s supposed thematic centrality, we hear very little about this development. (Among other things, we never do find out what those “thoughts on the marriage plot” are.) “They didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend,” Madeleine happily thinks about a couple of fellow aspirants who befriend her at an academic conference — yet it is all the novel asks.

And because that is the chief question at hand, I felt more investment in the novel’s answer to it than I might have if other options for Madeleine’s future were more fully fleshed out.  Still, there is much to recommend about this book to anyone who has been lost in questions literary, philosophical, and religious, to anyone who has been lost in young and awkward love and to anyone, too, who has been lost in the romance of longing itself.