I have not read The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex, even though I am a little obsessed with hermaphrodites, less so with virgins. Thus, before finishing up The Marriage Plot a few days ago, I had boringly not yet been touched literarily or physically by Eugenides.
Want to preface this whole long look at the author’s newest endeavor by saying that I enjoyed the book immensely. I will continue with the information that many elements of this book hit home with me, personally. Finally, I want to talk about structure and how the subject matter influenced, in a few ways, the manner in which Eugenides handled his characters and the unveiling of the story.
Superficially, the novel tells the tale of three characters transitioning from college to the real world, but that’s not something that I thought about much while reading, or I probably wouldn’t have finished this book. What attracted me was how Eugenides relates preppy but smart Madeleine’s emotional undoing during her break up with crazy ass but brilliant Leonard. What reeled me in more was thoughtful and religiously curious Mitchell, who is totally in love with Madeleine and who I kind of spent the whole novel being obsessed with, in a completely narcissistic way.
The three of them are graduating from Brown in the early ’80s, having tried really hard to be smarter and better-read than everyone else at the school. The reason you may not like this book is exactly why I was so charmed. There’s philosopher name dropping galore, but it’s not unnecessary, and I’ll tell you why.
They’re in college and so it makes sense. Romantic myths and intellectual theories run wild within each person’s head at that stage. They dream about thinkers and writers like Derrida and Brontë as if they were in the room – well, at least when you’re a nerd student. Madeleine is torn between her love of the Victorian authors and (post)modern theories. She’s penning a thesis on the marriage plot, one that has female protagonists married by the end of each novel, that’s where her or the story ends. The Marriage Plot openly questions marriage in literature and real life, what divorce did to the marriage plot idea, etc.
Then the studious, romantic Madeleine takes a seminar on semiotics, she gets to questioning everything, while still remaining true to her love of more traditional stories. I was, again, drawn in, as a woman, by the questioning of this marriage plot, which sort of reveals itself throughout the book. But the postmodern theory was what got me all tingly.
It is through the character Thurston, her classmate in the seminar, that the reader gets an extremely gross representation of what it seems postmodern theory is, characterized in a person. He’s this hyper-intellectual, too-ironic, detached from the physical in every way dude. Madeleine’s encounter with him reflects her interlude with semiotics, intriguing intellectually, but lacking in sensuality.
However, in this class, Madeleine finds actual love with Leonard and Barthes with A Lover’s Discourse. Eugenides thus demonstrates, not only a critique of the philosophies, but shows a bridge between two seemingly disparate manners of thought, semiotics and the Victorians. Postmodernism has room for romance.
What we learn later in the novel is that this behavior is characteristic of religious studies major Mitchell. It is what Leonard most admires in him. Mitchell challenges and ties together seemingly different religious thoughts in a class the two take together earlier in their college careers. Eugenides is like Mitchell, Greek, from Detroit, he’s into tying things together intellectually.
Once stuck to the book because of all the semiotics talk, I became totally, entirely nuts about it because Mitchell is, as mentioned, a religious studies major and is in pursuit of a genuine religious experience. I myself studied religion at both the undergrad and graduate levels. It’s something that you do out of love, not for the hopes of making even the most meager living.
Though I related a lot to Mitchell, in some ways, with the Merton and Mother Teresa talk, he reminded me of my brother at 18, ready to go to seminary. As a woman of the ’90s, I was never attracted to that sort of spiritual experience, but rather to ones that avoided celibacy and didn’t ignore the sensations of the body. I wanted to find the mystical through the physical. I know you don’t care, but I’m getting somewhere here.
Mitchell’s time in Calcutta at the Home of Dying Destitutes showed me that there is something I missed entirely in the Christian experience. That is that through the body of the person you’re helping, through this body that is also the body of Christ, you can have a physical experience that allows for transcendence. I learned something important about Catholicism. I knew, saw and have experienced it, but never really looked at it intellectually. Sure, I considered Catholic social movements, but all the feminist talk, postmodern analysis, and American sterile distance separated me from this understanding of something very simple. Mystical moments can be had through hands on, healing work. Mitchell knows this, but doesn’t learn it. What this demonstrates isn’t just that Mitchell is not a saint, but that theory is very different from experience.
Eugenides manages to have you rooting for Mitchell, poo-pooing Leonard, and in within only a few sentences, reversing these feelings entirely. Leonard is relatable in that he is in the shit struggle, but he is smarter and better in his superman mania than most reading the book. So, it’s easy to dismiss him. His attempts to manage his illness, his energy levels, and his focus, these are things that I could relate to also. It’s not easy waking up every morning not in tip top shape, especially for someone with immense gifts and insurmountable flaws both in constant tension. (Just realized something. Leonard’s religious experience and manic-depressive stuff were obviously related, but then, maybe the illness can be viewed from the perspective of Hegelian dialectic with the positive having to pass through the negative to reach a state of becoming, offering a hierophany? Maybe I’m jumping ahead of myself, not remembering schooling correctly, or just maybe I just gave someone a thesis. You’re welcome).
In these three stereotypes, Mitchell, Leonard, and Madeleine, Eugenides manages to give life to individuals. He doesn’t mock them. Madeleine wears her Kennedy gear, plays tennis, she likes that Leonard needs her. These two guys that wouldn’t have had a chance with her in high school now get their moment, in and after college. Somehow, I, who is not like Madeleine, didn’t dislike like her, didn’t at any point think she was ridiculous, laughable, or stupid. I could imagine being in her position, I wanted her to be satisfied.
Now, I want to look at the structure of the book. The first half, almost totally focuses on Madeleine with such a good, unrushed energy. But as the male characters’ stories are integrated, there is less space for Madeleine. She is minimized and I lamented that. It wasn’t that I found the book any less interesting, it was just that Madeleine becomes smaller and more distant, and it’s so different from the intimacy you get at the beginning of the novel, where you’re in her life. Now there are all these men crowding her story, which symbolizes something (very Reviving Ophelia).
The subject of the marriage plot is unveiled in the novel. The title was clearly going to lead you to some sort of understanding of a modern marriage plot the whole time, but it’s still surprising when it does. Though Eugenides explains why the proposal and how the marriage take place, it’s less believable than the rest of the novel. I think the need to create this “plot” sort of makes for the book’s weakest moments.
Is Eugenides deconstructing the familiar Victorian novel plot idea? I guess. Yes. He is writing a modern lady’s coming of age tale, complete with proposals and realities of mental illness, city life, love, academia. It examines, like Victorian novels, marrying outside of your “class.” Madeleine’s family are some upper crusters, and Leonard endlessly struggles with that, no matter how supportive they are of him.
The Marriage Plot does all that and more. Eugenides talks about the role of the reader through Madeleine by bringing up Eco’s The Role of the Reader, of course. I think this is relevant in that Eugenides seems to handle his readers like a Victorian novelist, crafting for them a tale, but that’s not all. Like Eco, he’s valuing intertextuality here, constantly referencing other authors, works and theories. He’s trying to tell a basic tale through these other references and thus asking something extra from the reader. Even Madeleine has a bond with Madeline of the children’s books.
Culture matters much to the story here. I believe he chose this time, the unromantic early ’80s, to show something, too, though my theory on that drifted off somewhere when I fell asleep the other night thinking about what I’d be writing here and now. I think I’ve said enough.
Hear and see Eugenides on Saturday, Nov. 19, 10:00 a.m., Chapman at Miami Dade College.