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Books, Documentaries, Reviews: Jeffrey Eugenides, THE MARRIAGE PLOT

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  March 23, 2014

The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides

I really enjoyed this novel.

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The setting is Brown University (mostly flashbacks) and the year or so after the three main characters graduate and are trying to get on their feet.

Madeleine loves to read and has majored in Literature.  She loves Leonard, who is brilliant but is just coming to grips with pretty severe mental illness–extreme manic/depressive swings.  Mitchell loves Madeleine and is seriously trying to work out how to live a life of meaning and purpose which may or may not include Madeleine.

Here’s a quote that can orient you a bit:

Her junior year, Madeleine had taken an honors seminar called The Marriage Plot:  Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James.  The class was taught by K. McCall Saunders….a seventy-nine-year-old New Englander….In Saunders’s opinion the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance.  In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about.  The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage.  Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.  And divorce had undone it completely.  What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?  How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?  As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.  Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?  You couldn’t.  You had to read historical fiction.  You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies.  Afghani novels, Indian novels.  You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time (21-22).

Madeleine’s senior thesis involves the marriage plot in Victorian novels.

Yet, she marries Leonard, knowing he is very ill.  She had walked out on him after he had egregiously insulted her some weeks before graduation, and, perhaps she felt responsible for the hospitalization that followed and for the next year when he is on so many medications that he can hardly function.  Perhaps she was motivated by feeling that he loved her after all–a kind of “I got my man.”  Perhaps she thought she could help cure him–the ancient nurturing role for women.  Who knows?  But it is a “marriage plot” of sorts, isn’t it?  So is Eugenides trying to write a novel about marriage that is still valid?

Mitchell carries Madeleine in his imagination and his desires as his “ideal” woman–which is another form of  the Western marriage plot, one that involves “winning” the woman, loving her forever, ideal marriage, and so on and on.  After graduation, he travels the world, including India, and begins to sort out romance and culture from reality.  He writes Madeleine from India imploring her not to marry Leonard and suggesting they both go back to school and live together.  He will study theology; she will study Victorian novels or whatever she wants.

How does it all end up?

I won’t tell…

Warning:  there is a lot of philosophical discussion about the meaning of life, modern notions of deconstruction, etc., all of which is pertinent and interesting in a college class setting, but which may be off-putting to some readers.  Indeed, I think it was to some reviewers, which is kind of sad, actually.

Written by louisaenright

March 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm

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