Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Marriage Plot ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

So I'm not really sure what to say about The Marriage Plot.  Not that I have nothing to say.  I have a lot to say, I just have to figure out how to make it coherent.  I am certain, however, that whatever I say will be spoiler-ific, so beware unwelcome revelations.

Madeleine is a young woman graduating from college when the novel opens, concerned with not being dependent on a man while obsessed with the traditional marriage plot of Victorian literature and nearly incapacitated with heartbreak after the end of her relationship with brilliant, enigmatic Leonard.  She reflects on feminist issues (though other, minor female characters do so more aggressively throughout the novel, like her sister whose husband calls her Mommy even when their child isn't around).  Leonard, Madeleine's romantic interest, is a manic-depressive genius and a man characteristically in need of a woman's care.  And finally, there is Mitchell, concerned with his issues of spirituality, desperately in love with Madeleine (who sees him as just a friend), and accused by one of the aforementioned minor female characters of ogling women on the street and being a basic misogynist (I disagree).  Soon after graduation, Mitchell leaves for Europe and India, to see the world and bypass the recession before looking for a job.  The novel takes place in the early 1980's, but the characters' and the country's situation are not all that different from my own recent experience - graduating from college with a degree in liberal arts in a country void of jobs in general, never mind for somebody who majored in English.  The characters' concerns are very much my own, which made the book quite accessible, and I flew through it.

What was clear from the very beginning of The Marriage Plot is that there are some strong feminist themes contained within it and that the Madeleine's characterization is quite heavy-handed. For example: If any single moment defined Madeleine's generation of girls, dramatized their aspirations, put into clear focus what they expected from themselves and from life, it was those two hours and fifteen minutes when the country watched a man in white shorts get thrashed by a woman... (p. 33).  While reflecting on why she herself always loses to her less talented father in tennis, Madeleine worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men (p. 10).  Madeleine plans not to marry until her early thirties, when her career is established, but within a year of graduating college finds herself marrying Leonard after reuniting with him in the hospital after his illness showed itself.  Though the novel doesn't exactly say this, it seems that the feminist ideals of Madeleine's college days are gone - there she is, without a career, taking care of a man for a job, much like what happened to her sister and mother before her.  Eugenides seems to be suggesting that feminism isn't necessarily a real-life kind of thing.  Something nice to talk about it, but does it really work out?

And what about Eugenides?  Maybe that's true - it often is, for many women (I certainly do more than my fair share of the dishes) - but what does it mean for a man to be saying it?  Modern literary theory tends to tell us to leave the author out of it, but that's not so easy when it's a man delivering a message concerning feminist issues.  It almost seems a little like he's saying, this is how it is, deal with it.  Almost.

But then the ending.  Mitchell, slightly more enlightened than when he left the United States, reencounters Madeleine, wanting desperately for her to leave Leonard (who leaves her instead) and have him.  He doesn't even consider that she has a third, invisible option - no man at all.  And it seems like she doesn't either, clinging to him when Leonard is gone, even sleeping with him pages from the end.  But then, a little voice inside of him, which may or may not be God, tells him that it's not to be.  And he tells Madeleine that the marriage plot can have this third option, ending with no marriage at all.  And it felt a little revelatory, because at the end, what I understood, was that Eugenides was saying is that men need to be feminists too.  Yes, we all know that, but we tend to think of feminism as the province of women alone (see my last paragraph).  But feminism shouldn't be a battle, and can hardly be sustained if it is.  Women need men's support to be independent and strong and all of the things Madeleine wanted to be at the beginning of the novel.  Not because they are men, but because they are half the people, because we love them and want them to be well, because it is unreasonable to live completely apart from them.  I feel like Eugenides is telling men to be feminists too and support women in the way women have always supported them.

Maybe this is a naive reading, but it's what I took away.  And really, it was quite lovely and surprising. The novel had it's flaws (particularly excessive name-dropping and a summary style of narration) but I felt like there was a real message underneath all of that, and that it was a positive one.  I'm probably going to post more about The Marriage Plot, because I have a whole lot more thoughts and this is already quite long, but I think this is enough for today.  I can't wait for reaction and responses, because I'm just bubbling over with conversation about this novel and nobody I know in real life has read it!


  1. This might be one of the most interesting reviews of The Marriage PLot that I've read, and I thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts down here for the rest of us.

    While I really liked the writing in this book, the farther I got into it, the less engaged I was with the characters. By the time I came to the end, I was so far put out by all of them and their sheer innocence/stupidity about relationships and living on their own in the adult world that I wanted to hurl the book at something. Your take on things is much nicer. :)

    But I think Eugenides did a creditable job writing of mental illness, both how difficult it is to live with it and to love somebody with it.

    1. Thank you! I might write another post about the book including my thoughts on his portrayal of mental illness, since it didn't fit here. I thought he described it well, but it was a little textbook. Almost the exact same information I just learned about bipolar disorder in a pyschopathology class. It didn't really seem unique to a specific person's own experience. However, it was sensitive and looked at a lot of issues. I need to think about it a bit more, I think.

  2. Very interesting review. I own this book and hope to read it soon, so it'll be interesting to see if I have any of the same impressions as you.

    1. Thank you! I'll be sure to check out your review!