A couple of weeks ago I attended a reading by Jeffrey Eugenides from his latest novel, The Marriage Plot. The introducer told those of us in the audience that this was “a safe space for English majors tonight,” and Eugenides concurred, saying “Everyone here was an English major. I’ve been reading only to English majors all around the country.” This English major settled cozily in for an evening of pandering to her particular disposition.
And yes, a large portion of The Marriage Plot—the portion from which Eugenides read that evening— caters to the indulgent romanticism and self-satisfied pedantry of the English major. Madeleine belongs to the “campus lit crit elite,” taking classes on Hawthorne and James, seminars on Beowulf and dense upper division courses on semiotics. And despite the fact that I honestly took every single one of those classes and therefore delighted in the authenticity of Madeleine’s fictional course schedule, I most connected to this sentence: “Madeleine had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
Madeleine marvels at the relevance of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to her own life. “Here was an articulation of what she had so far been mutely feeling.” She is entirely aware of the fallacy and implausibility of romantic love, yet finds herself strangely susceptible to it. The Marriage Plot is a deconstruction of the marriage plot, any novel whose resolution focuses solely on its protagonist’s accomplishment in getting married. And yet the three protagonists of The Marriage Plot, a novel with alternating narration, are all deeply and irrevocably immersed in fantasies of romantic love. Eugenides pointed out that the very use of three narratives subverts the tradition of the marriage plot, yet the novel honors that tradition as earnestly as it violates it.
What else is college if not a series of brains fighting hormones, students falling in love while feeling academically above it? Eugenides mentioned that evening that this novel began to assimilate in his mind with the following line: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at the time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” The semiotics course she takes her senior year is meant to teach students to disassemble traditional values and take a pragmatic, unflinching look at literary and societal manipulation. And yet it’s in this course that Madeleine meets Leonard and finds herself poring over the more sentimental passages in Barthes.
Eugenides spoke about a professor who once misquoted a famous line by La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Eugenides said the professor told him instead, “No would ever fall in love if they hadn’t read about it first.” I prefer that version of the quote. Fictional romantic love is a dangerous thing, leaving us all unsatisfied with anyone who isn’t Mr. Darcy or Estella Havisham. (Never mind the fact that Darcy and Estella would make terrible romantic partners.) In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell (the third point of this prim love triangle) are all susceptible to the absurdity of craving not life’s love, but fiction’s love.
Eugenides said that before beginning The Marriage Plot, he was working on another novel featuring a large family, one peripheral member of which was Madeleine. He then found himself drawn to Madeleine and gave up the other novel, deciding instead to write a book focusing on this character. That makes sense, because the portions of The Marriage Plot told from Madeleine’s perspective are by far the most compelling. However, the story of Leonard, the brilliant, handsome manic depressive who inspires Madeleine’s longing, is nearly as significant. The descriptions of Leonard’s helpless surrender to his own mental chemistry are heartbreaking and stunningly tangible.
The narrative offered by brainy religious studies major Mitchell, however, is a little hollow and lacking. Much like Madeleine, he compares his feelings and experiences to what he is reading at the time, but he never quite resonates. It’s interesting because Mitchell travels to Europe and India and volunteers for Mother Teresa, as Eugenides himself once did. Eugenides freely admitted that while Mitchell’s section is the closest to autobiographical, it was the hardest to write, becoming unwieldy. Eugenides said, “I find true autobiographical writing impossible but I also find it impossible to write something without some connection to my life.”
When the Q&A moderator asked how Eugenides wrote such a convincing female protagonist (more convincing, even, than his two male protagonists), Eugenides replied that he writes females by not writing females. He writes them as humans and thinks of them as females secondarily. He said that almost all of the things that Madeleine thinks regarding her relationships with Leonard or Mitchell are things that he’s thought himself in relationships, and the rest he garnered through close observation, such as a woman’s fear of urinary tract infections at the beginning of a sexual relationship. “You start seeing enough cranberry juice in enough refrigerators…” Madeleine is indeed fully realized, flawed and utterly believable in a way that Mitchell and Leonard aren’t.
The Marriage Plot is almost entirely a wonderful novel, plainly yet beautifully written, honest and piercing. Because it’s a clever deconstruction of romantic, Victorian novels, I never expected or wanted a happy ending. However, the ending was worse than unhappy. It took the progress of the three protagonists, everything they had worked toward throughout the novel, and destroyed it. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are each further from the realization of happiness and progress than they were on the first page of the book. I like ambiguous endings. I like unhappy endings. But I do not like an ending that invalidates all of the character advances that preceded it. I decidedly did not like the ending of The Marriage Plot—but you should definitely still read it.