The Book Club is a regular feature in which Full Stop editors and guests discuss a book in depth over the course of the week. This time we’re reading The Marriage Plot, a new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. We’ll be discussing all week; catch up on Monday’s post here, and check back tomorrow for more.
It’s true that Eugenides does not explicitly devote much space to the convention of the marriage plot, but I do not consider this a failure. I think the fact that the Victorian ideals are confined to the books, no matter how much people like Phyllida, Madeleine’s mother, try to preserve them, is a commentary in itself. To me, it says that the customs we use to recognize love may change, but the passions that underpin those customs are constant.
To this end, the love triangle that is Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell represents and undermines several romantic traditions over the course of the novel. Mitchell, who aspires to a saintly life, believes that his bond with Madeleine is pure, whereas the relationship between Madeleine and Leonard is purely carnal. From across the globe, he turns Madeleine into an idol, and in the process, he becomes both a knight-errant and a Werther (discussed in the novel via Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse). But what these two traditions, chivalric romance and romanticism, respectively, could not allow — the consummation of “pure” love — Eugenides provides, and the result is predictably disappointing and alienating for both parties.
It’s interesting that, in The Marriage Plot, it is Leonard, whose love is more than requited, who is on suicide watch and not Mitchell, who, in addition to dealing with a crisis of faith, believes that the love of his life has married his rival. Suicide, in the novel, is an act of resignation rather than dedication. I think this is, in part, a result of the diminishing weight of marriage and, subsequently, the marriage plot. Unlike Dorothea Brooke, Madeleine does not have to choose between marriage and destitution; unlike Werther, Mitchell does not have to choose between love and death. The emotions are still great, but the stakes have lowered.
So I think that the marriage plot, though rarely highlighted, is still a significant part of the novel. I also think that the final scene, which Amanda has quoted, is more than a simple summary of the pages before it. When Mitchell asks Madeleine if she likes the ending he has just described, he is indirectly and performatively asking her to marry him. He allows Madeleine to say “no” by saying “yes,” and for me, this contrast between what we say and what we mean is a great way to frame the tension that exists in the novel between the lover and the romantic, the actual and the ideal.
In a schematic view, The Marriage Plot hits all the right notes for me. I share plenty of its obsessions and bear more than a slight resemblance to a few of its characters. The ones I don’t resemble, I feel I’ve known, or dated, or hated. Before I got ahold of the novel the advance press had me fairly well hooked. Most descriptions of the book, relying on the “list as description” technique, employed similar inventories: Pulitzer Prize winning author, recent graduates, a recession, post-structuralism, Christian Mysticism, abundant melancholy, etc. Having just recently graduated college in a recession and flirted with Lacan, Merton, and melancholy, I felt set squarely to be bowled over. And then I wasn’t.
I think my disappointment has a lot to do with what Eric astutely identifies as “the tension that exists in the novel between the lover and the romantic, the actual and the ideal.” And while I agree that this tension dominates the novel and propels a lot of the more touching emotional action, I think it fails in its efforts to come down on the side of such a tricky binary.
To explain, let me be a lil’ elliptical. Early in The Marriage Plot, Madeline Hannah has an epiphanic moment while reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse at home one Friday night. “The necessity for this book,” writes Barthes in its introduction, “is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.” This declaration, both ironic and sentimental in its treatment of the big subject, hits Madeline hard, unarmored as she is, and prompts the following realization:
What made Madeline sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeline was in a state of extreme solitude.
It’s an interesting moment for a several reasons, not least of which is that it seems to be one of those playful moments in a book about books when our protagonist tells us why they read books and so gently suggests how we should be reading this one. In this particular moment, Madeline experiences an intense communion with something she is reading and, as a result, she comes to know herself better. All of the main characters in this book are readers – as is Eugenides (obviously), as is the reader (by definition?) – and we read about similar moments of literary revelation for each of them. It’s an experience I’m familiar with, and, I suspect, one that most readers of literary fiction hold dear. Speaking broadly, its one of the big reasons we love to read, and I get the sense that these fictionalized accounts of illumination are models of what Eugenides was shooting for with The Marriage Plot.
Ironically, this sense of connection is exactly what I felt was missing from the book. At times I felt I identified with characters completely, but never intensely. Like a parody of Madeline’s experience with Barthes, I found myself reading a book that described why I love to read but didn’t inspire much affection itself. Eugenides may indeed be attempting to explore that gulf between the ideal and the real, but the characters that fill this novel feel like outlines of people, all warp and no weft. Over and over throughout the novel, things that should feel real are only ever familiar, and it’s a lonely feeling.