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Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve enjoyed being swept along by the intertwined lives and romances of Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard but now it’s sadly over (and this post will therefore contain spoilers). The Marriage Plot was a very interesting book. I liked this Guardian review, which describes some of the reasons I enjoyed the novel, but disagree with some of the comments – I don’t understand why people dismiss the novel as ‘pretentious’ apparently just because it discusses literary theory and philosophical questions, or consider that it’s not about ‘real people’ because the main characters are students.

I don’t think the novel is pretentious at all, because the literary theory and other ideas are integral to the plot and characters, and aren’t just added superficially to make the novel seem more intelligent than it is (which is what my definition of ‘pretentious’ would be). I also very much feel that ideas, books and academia can’t somehow be completely separated from the rest of life, which is what some of the comments seem to suggest. The novel itself is written in quite a straightforward way, and it does actually raise some of the arguments against Derrida and similar writers, and the difficulty people experience when attempting to read their work, so I don’t know what’s pretentious about that!

After the three main characters graduate, The Marriage Plot becomes more fragmented as Mitchell’s storyline separates from that of Leonard and Madeleine. One section of the book travels with Mitchell and his friend Larry on their epic trip around Europe and India, and another follows Leonard and Madeleine as they move to Cape Cod for Leonard to take up his research fellowship studying the behaviour of yeast. After being hospitalised with manic depression while at college, Leonard is taking high doses of lithium, experiencing horrible side-effects that make sense of his decision to begin experimenting with his dose. While the effects of the dose reduction are initially positive and send him into a mildly manic state that he and Madeleine welcome, he gradually becomes more and more unstable. It is depressing to consider Leonard’s choice between his illness and a life on medication that seems to take away some of his personality and intelligence.

What also struck me about this section of the book was how unhappy Madeleine was. It is introduced quite gradually, because earlier she is portrayed as much more stable than Leonard; she had been popular at school and has never experienced depression before. However, in the last half of the book it is clear how isolated she has become, and the novel conveys a sense of her powerlessness, both in the way she tried to adapt to Leonard’s illness and seems dependent on his approval (although he is equally dependent on her at certain points), and in the way her parents attempt to control her life. I felt relieved that Madeleine’s academic ambitions gave her some hope of freedom, especially at the end of the novel.

Meanwhile Mitchell begins working at a hospital in India, while mingling with hippies and fellow travellers at the Salvation Army Guest House. I liked this plot strand because I was interested by Mitchell’s attempt to test himself and discover how well his ideals held up against reality. I can see how, as suggested in the review I linked to, lust and love are partly what’s behind Mitchell’s spiritual quest, but I don’t think that explains his explorations away. There’s also a connection with Leonard’s story, which doesn’t become clear until towards the end: the line between mysticism and madness, and the question of how far we can trust our own experiences when they seem outside the bounds of what’s considered normal.

After attending an academic conference, Madeleine phones up her father in excitement, having decided that she is going to become a Victorianist. The many references to Victorian novels in The Marriage Plot seem to suggest that the plotline of Madeleine’s life is not very different from much of the literature she studies and loves. In his wedding speech, Leonard describes Madeleine jokingly as his Victorian ‘angel in the house’, alluding to the way she cares for him during his illness. But in another way, the gender roles of Victorian archetypes are reversed, as Madeleine realises that Leonard is the ‘madwoman in the attic’ for her. Then, while on their honeymoon, Leonard buys an antique cape, which he wears on a manic nocturnal visit to the casino, swooping around like Dracula. Maybe it implies that he’s vampirically sucking the life out of Madeleine, or it could be an appropriately gothic image for someone on the brink of madness. There are other possible literary allusions which aren’t that explicit. Leonard’s breakdown while on his honeymoon reminded me of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, with the beautiful young married couple, the luxurious setting of Monaco, and the dramatic crack-up of one of the characters, but Leonard’s illness and the effects of his medication definitely aren’t in any way glamorous.

To me, these images show how the culture in which the characters live is one that’s grown out of the Victorian (or 1920s) world – it’s not completely outdated or alien – and the ‘marriage plot’ is still something that’s very important in our lives. The concepts that the characters use to think about their lives derive from what they read, and those Victorian images like the madwoman in the attic and the angel in the house are still here. But the different angles they are viewed from in the novel also reveal the differences between the nineteenth century and modern life. Which leads me to the ending of the book, which suggests what lies beyond the marriage proposal, almost a ‘way out’ of the problem of basing one’s whole existence around getting married.

I was glad that Madeleine would have the freedom to decide the direction of her own life, although I felt annoyed with Mitchell for deciding that she ‘wasn’t that special’ after she had never asked him to idealise her in the first place! (I suppose that is sometimes how we ‘get over’ people in reality, but it seemed a bit harsh to me.) His decision at the end seemed unselfish but I think was based on the more self-interested realisation that he and Madeleine weren’t actually physically attracted to eachother (which is one of the problems of idealising someone that much). Although I liked Mitchell, he never seemed to get out of his own head and realise the effects of his lovelorn misery on other people. Nevertheless the end of the book suggests that the characters are moving on to a new, exciting time in their lives (but what would happen to Leonard?). The book ends with a ‘yes’ but it’s not the reply to a marriage proposal, it’s saying yes to something else entirely.

 

I’m currently about halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, and am finding it fascinating and very enjoyable. Set in America in the early 80s, it is the story of three university students who become involved in a love triangle. The novel, which continues to follow the students during the year after they graduate, feels very vital and realistic, and, perhaps mainly because the writing is so good, I can strongly relate to some of the characters’ experiences.

Madeleine is an English major working on a thesis about marriage in the nineteenth century novel. Her professor argues that, in the twentieth century, marriage is no longer such a compelling plot device, that sexual liberation, divorce and women’s financial independence mean the choices someone makes in marriage don’t have the same urgency as they did in the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen. This is an appropriate background for a novel that seems (so far) to be about modern relationships. The main characters in this novel are preoccupied with two things, love and ideas, which is a wonderful mixture of subjects to read about. And the novel seems to suggest that the way the characters think about relationships can’t be separated from their intellectual interests or the ways they look at the world in general. Books (and films and music to some extent) are very important to them. They begin to find out what they think and feel about life through reading and studying, and the ideas they discover at college, during this tumultuous period of life, change them.

As I studied English at university, some of the early parts of the book which talk about Madeleine’s experiences as a student made me laugh. For example:

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical  – because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories.

Or this:

Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water Babies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.

I am also enjoying reading about Mitchell, a theology student, who is in love with Madeleine. The book describes how, despite not having a religious background, he becomes fascinated by the subject of mystical experience. I like the way the book takes Mitchell’s exploration of religious and philosophical questions seriously. It also creates a vivid picture of some of the other aspects of being a student, such as drunken parties, hangovers, breakdowns, impoverished attempts to travel, and the way people befriend, dislike, and try to impress each other in the very intense atmosphere of university.

One of the early scenes in The Marriage Plot describes a discussion in Madeleine’s semiotics seminar, in which one student argues that books are always about other books – they are responding to a literary tradition, trying to experiment and create something new. Madeleine thinks this comment contains some insight but is also depressing and she wishes it wasn’t true. She loves reading a traditional novel because ‘there was going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world’ and she finds comfort in discovering through literature that she is not alone. I think The Marriage Plot, from what I’ve read so far, seems to be a combination of these two aspects of literature. It is a book about books and literary questions, full of references to what Madeleine and Mitchell are reading that make me want to go out and read almost every title it mentions. In particular, I am very interested in reading A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, a book which Madeleine becomes obsessed with because it seems to mirror her own situation, even though the book is supposed to be a deconstruction of romantic love. But as much as it is about books, The Marriage Plot also seems to be an attempt to write a traditional nineteenth-century-style novel, long and detailed, full of realistic characters created with affection, who might make you recognise your own life in its pages.

This is the first time I’ve written about a book when I haven’t finished it yet! Because I’m enjoying it so much, I felt I had to write my first impressions. I hope I like the remaining half just as much. I might report back when I’ve finished…