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’re discussing all week; catch up on Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s posts, and check back tomorrow for our concluding comments.
Michael, I’m glad you drew attention to the novel as a period piece, and I liked your summation of its era as “an undeniably odd time” – in a lot of ways, this felt to me like an undeniably odd book. This is largely due to Eugenides’ treatment of Madeleine, who I’ve been puzzling over since finishing the book several weeks ago.
Madeleine is stationed not only between Mitchell and Leonard, as the love interest, but also within the generational divide that exists between her WASP-y parents and her older sister, Alwyn, who definitely didn’t miss out on the 1970s. Madeleine inherits her parents’ upper-class sense of propriety (not to mention, as Amanda noted, her parents’ political and legal connections), as well as the “Bachelorette’s Survival Kit” from Alwyn – a kit that includes condoms and an edible penis, among other things. But Madeleine isn’t interested in her sister’s generation’s struggle for women’s rights and sexual freedom. Shocked and ashamed, she hides the kit. She reacts similarly to her college graduation – she finds it freeing because she can finally abandon the pressure of beatnikdom, and be her true, preppy self. Basically: while she’s the center of all this conflict, Madeleine is strangely, almost dogmatically, boring.
I will back up for a moment to say that I do agree with you Michael, in that Eugenides emphasizes Madeleine as a romantic – one who is, by her own rueful estimation, “incurable.” And yes, she falls in love. But does being a romantic — and falling in love — necessarily discount agency? Rather than being motivated by romance, Madeleine’s decisions are more than anything defined by the expectations and decisions of those around her. Even when she scandalizes her mother by moving in with her boyfriend, she’s just following him to a place where she has no job and no goals and no friends. Even when ending her marriage, she does so by acquiescence. The only thing she does for herself and by herself in the entire novel is to go to an academic conference and apply for grad school. (And compared to Mitchell’s experiences in Calcutta and Leonard’s psychotic breaks — their Nietzschean darkness/Kierkegaardian leaps of faith, as Amanda put it — Madeleine declaring herself a Victorianist hardly seems worth noting.) The confluence of Madeleine’s failure to act with Mitchell’s grand statements about feminism at the end of the novel felt so odd and so forced to me, because Madeleine never demonstrates the agency that Mitchell suddenly sees in her. In fact, it’s only with Mitchell’s prodding (like Eric notes, Mitchell expressly allows Madeleine to say no) that she agrees, yes, thank you very much, perhaps she would like to be alone right now.
Michael, I think you made another good point when talking about these characters’ generation: “They weren’t the first generation of lovers who could make up their own ‘marriage plot’…but they might have been the first who had to.” But in this novel, I didn’t feel that the main character around whom the romantic conflict revolves (Madeleine, the heroine) was at all involved in making up her own marriage plot. I didn’t even feel that Leonard was actively involved. Leonard and Madeleine’s marriage is an unfortunate consequence of a manic episode, and its dissolution the result of the bare fact of Leonard’s untreated mental illness (with help from Madeleine’s parents’ lawyer). The marriage plot in this book existed solely for Mitchell. Mitchell is the one who decided he and Madeleine were destined for marriage; he’s the one who constructed Leonard as his foe; and he’s ultimately the one to free Madeleine from the restrictions defined by the marriage plot in its traditional sense – the one playing out in his mind. In this book, Mitchell invents his own marriage plot. The other characters simply move, unquestioningly, within the roles assigned to them.
I, too, found myself searching for redeeming qualities in Madeleine, but I do not agree that she is merely an anachronism or an object of Mitchell and Leonard’s love. She does not lack agency simply because she does not behave the way we wish for her to; she is not dogmatic because she does not try to be someone she does not want to be.
Leonard does not drag Madeleine to Cape Cod; she has been rejected from graduate school (a proposal of her own) and chooses purgatory over returning to her parents. And as Leonard withdraws into his unstable mind, it is passion, not submission, that drives Madeleine to pursue him to the point that it seems she will go mad herself. Leonard may ask her to marry him in a state of mania, but Madeleine accepts of her own volition. She wants to marry him, and she does. Mitchell is no more independent for running away from love rather than toward it. Even in Calcutta, his feelings for Madeleine weigh him down. For both of them, devotion coincides with a suppression of self, but to say that Madeleine is not responsible for her actions is to absolve her; however, Madeleine is not innocent.
Though Mitchell is largely responsible for framing the novel’s love triangle, Madeleine is undoubtedly complicit in its persistence. It is Madeleine who revives her friendship with Mitchell before graduation and who takes Leonard back after her rejection from Yale. It is Madeleine who gives Mitchell hope in New York and who goes to his bedroom, in the house to which he has followed her, after Leonard leaves her. And if Mitchell is the lens through which we see Madeleine, Madeleine is certainly the lens of Leonard. Her paralysis may not be as fascinating as Leonard’s darkness, but it is Madeleine’s reliable voice that fills that unreliable darkness. It is to her that we turn to find out how she and Leonard were married and how Leonard chipped his teeth in Monaco.
The lovers reveal their beloveds, but in the process, they become foreign to themselves. Obfuscated by love, madness, and uncertainty, Leonard’s illness, Mitchell’s vanity, and Madeleine’s repression are rarely examined by their sufferers (Madeleine is too ashamed to look, Mitchell looks in the wrong place, and Leonard looks but cannot see). So if Madeleine seems less than real, perhaps this is the fault of Mitchell and Leonard, each of whom objectifies her in his own self-serving way (she is a safety net for Leonard, an idol for Mitchell). Nevertheless, each character takes a leap, each character has darkness, and each character becomes paralyzed. Each pursues, retreats, and waits.