The Marriage Plot

October and November hit like a tidal wave every year, what with grades due and college recommendations and parent conferences. It’s like the whole shebang of teaching gets tamped down into a giant cannon, the fuse lit, and I am the target. Grading takes longer because students still do not know the terms, the expectations, so we must explain more fully in cramped words scrawled slant across the margins. College recommendations pile up, and this year, no thank you very much, UNC-Chapel Hill, some universities decided to move their early due date to October 15, which meant the hysteria of college applications rose early in the seniors’ hallway outside my office.

All of this serves as prologue to my sheer delight in reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.  Usually, I don’t read anything new until Thanksgiving–too tired, working too late, I typically just try to get through the NYTimes crossword puzzle and then to sleep.  But how could an English major resist a novel about an English major, and with such teasers in the reviews as Middlemarch meets deconstruction!  The novel traces a year in the life of three Brown graduates, beginning on their graduation day in 1982. Essentially, the three main characters, Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus (what a marvelous name!), and Leonard Bankhead, form a strange love triangle, with Mitchell the yearning third wheel, always having desired Madeleine since first meeting her freshman year.

In a word, the novel is delicious. All those wonderful intellectual ideas of the 1970s and 80s swirl around the three sojourners. Madeleine works on rewriting her senior thesis on marriage in Austen and George Eliot novels while she tries to analyze her relationship with Leonard through Barthes’ The Lover’s Discourse. Mitchell struggles to understand the meaning of life through the theological texts of Christian mysticism while also attempting to either connect to or disconnect from his feelings for Madeleine.  Meawhile, Leonard rides the waves of mania and depression as he does research at a top-rated biology lab set in Cape Cod but modeled after Cold Spring Harbor–a Barbara-McKlintock-like character even makes an appearance.

Many of the big names in the lit crit world have cameos: the deconstruction and semiotics gang, Derrida, Foucault, Eco, Lyotard, etc., and the feminist lit crit crowd, Gilbert and Gubar, Terry Castle, and their more demanding French compatriots, Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray.  I laughed out loud numerous times as I recognized how realistically Eugenides captures the vapors of intellectual superiority wafting off the newly graduated. He so aptly puts it thusly:  “College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity” (23). So true, and I should also add, that list of scholars should not intimidate anyone from reading the novel.  They show up mainly as rare spices to plump up the flavor of the story.  The story itself riffs on the age-old narrative, the marriage plot.  I like to joke in class that in literature, women-centered plots typically have only one of two avenues to follow:  marriage or death.  Either she finds the man and marries him (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre), or she fails . . . in marrying, in staying married, etc., and she dies (Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Ubervilles). Eugenides knows this, and he plays around with the classic Victorian tale of a woman trying to find love and marriage.

What makes the novel truly fine though is a rare quality in an author.  These characters Eugenides sets up are ripe for lambasting.  He could have satirized them to the max.  But instead, he draws them lovingly–not blindly, he see the errors of trying to use intellectual constructs of academia to analyze the realities of everyday life and the human heart–but he paints them not as ridiculous but simply as what we all once were, young.  George Eliot had that skill; she saw her characters fully in all their foibles and follies, but she loved them and granted them dignity.  I was repeatedly struck by Eugenides’ skill in doing the same with Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Plus, the novel was so much fun to read that I could keep going in the midst of all the usual chaos of fall.  In particular, to all my English major friends, you simply have to read it.  It will remind you of bright college years!

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