Jeffrey Eugenides's 'The Marriage Plot'

In a recent New York Times “Conversation” feature, the writers Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin talked about the novel. Both agreed that it was still a good thing, still had plenty of life in it, indeed was still perhaps the best way (in Eugenides’ words) to describe human consciousness or “reality.” Both novelists are realist in their inclinations, and Eugenides especially spoke in very old-fashioned terms about how, in his new novel The Marriage Plot, he wanted his characters to “come to the fore,” to feel “truer” than they had in his previous two novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex (2003).

Neither of Eugenides’ previous novels seems to me satisfactory, even though full of cleverness and fun. In each case the defect is one of “realism,” or the lack of it. The Virgin Suicides is the story of five daughters in the Lisbon family who made suicide “familiar” by committing it. The “we” who narrate the story do a lot of speculating about how and why these events happened; but they seem not to share this reader’s response, who didn’t believe the story for a minute. Middlesex, which goes on for a couple of hundred pages longer than necessary, is about a protagonist of Greek origin, living in Detroit, who finds her/himself to be, of all things, a hermaphrodite. Much comic embarrassment is made out of this fact. But as with The Virgin Suicides, I had trouble—as students like to say—“identifying” with the central character, whose affliction, very common in mollusks and in worms, may not call out for realistic treatment by a novelist. At least—to make use of another student favorite—it’s very hard to “relate to.”

The Marriage Plot is easy to relate to from its very first sentence: “To start with, look at all the books.” The books belong to Madeleine Hanna, about to graduate from Brown University in 1982 (Eugenides was a student there), and are mainly nineteenth-century English and American novels, from Jane Austen to Henry James. As a bonus they include her mother’s first edition of John Updike’s Couples, which she is using to provide “textual support,” whatever that means, for her honors thesis on the marriage plot, the nineteenth-century literary convention in which novels end with heroines married. The books suddenly take a back seat when she wakes up the morning of graduation, hung-over, with her parents buzzing her from downstairs, ready to go to breakfast and the subsequent ceremonial rites. It’s a rocky start for young Madeleine, but over the course of the novel things will only get rockier. The fact that she is the daughter of well-to-do parents and hails from a town called Prettybrook, in New Jersey, surely means that some comeuppance is due.

The novel’s first section introduces us also to the two main men who will figure in Madeleine’s life: Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus. Leonard is brainy, handsome, excessive, indeed manic-depressive (this is 1982, before bipolar times); Mitchell, who like his creator is Greek, is a serious student of religion who quickly falls in love with Madeleine. But he is no match erotically for Leonard, with whom Madeleine falls in love. By the section’s end, Leonard has been hospitalized, bringing Madeleine to his bedside instead of the commencement ceremony. Before that we are treated to her undergraduate journey from a course in semiotic studies that features deconstruction, Derrida, and attendant sages, to, she hopes, the more stable shores of the novel. Eugenides uses Madeleine to get off some pretty good jokes about a subject lots of people major in by default: “English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.” But Madeleine loves to read and can become excited by a course-listing like “English 274; Lyly’s Euphues” (extremely unlikely, John Lyly being an extinct Tudor prose stylist) as her roommates are excited by clothes or sex. Previous to her venture into semiotic theory, she has taken an honors seminar with K. McCall Saunders, a seventy-nine-year-old has-been with a “long, horsey face and a moist laugh that exposed his gaudy dental work” whose pedagogy consists of “reading aloud lectures he’d written twenty or thirty years earlier.” A caricature, or was it just Brown in the 1980s? The semiotics course (what are semiotics, a faculty colleague of mine once inquired, to the derision of younger, more knowing colleagues) is taught by Professor Zipperstein (shades of Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places) who “instead of buying a sports car...bought deconstruction.” Madeleine’s flirtation with semiotics ends when she realizes that “she wasn’t all that interested, as a reader, in the reader.” This is a wonderfully turned piece of wit, although like much else in her narrative, the cleverness belongs more to Eugenides than his heroine. “She would become a spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance, and never gaining weight”: another splendid formulation but laid on the character rather than emanating from her.

This is to say that with Madeline, Eugenides doesn’t get what T. S. Eliot called, in relation to Ben Jonson’s dramatic characters, the “third dimension,” since we aren’t moved to take seriously her thought and feelings. A similar fact or difficulty shows up at times in the treatment of her boyfriend Leonard, a biology major aiming toward a career in science who also has a passion for theory of language. He has a colorful reputation as an eccentric genius with a dangerous capacity for pulling all-nighters to get his papers written. One of his philosophy professors offers him the use of a cabin in the Berkshires for a weekend. Leonard returns with a 123-page typescript on Fichte, and wearing a bright orange hunter’s vest which becomes his favorite item of clothing: “He wore it all the time.” (He also wears a bandanna, bringing to mind the late novelist David Foster Wallace.) We are to be taken by that flamboyant vest; yet in a novel that wants to get things “right” (and often does) about undergraduate life in the 1980s, the lifelikeness here is spoiled by caricature. It is doubtful, for example, that any undergraduate philosophy student, then or now, even reads Fichte, much less writes a 123-page paper about him during a rainy Berkshire weekend. Once again Eugenides’s impulse to strike off a good formulation with lively coupling (Fichte and the orange hunting vest) is at odds with the novelist’s determination to write realist fiction.

This opening section makes up about a third of the novel, and is deftly and entertainingly handled. What follows, Mitchell’s postgraduate travels in Europe and Asia and the trials of the Madeleine-Leonard relationship, is more problematic. That Mitchell is Greek makes us feel, justly or not, that he is close to the novelist’s heart. His interest in religious studies, fueled especially by William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, has made him aware “of the centrality of religion in human history.” He knows that “religious feeling didn’t arise from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences, either of great joy or of staggering pain.” One feels that not only Mitchell’s but his creator’s heart and mind are behind this. There is a sympathetic, mainly unironic tone to the narration of his travels, especially their culmination at the House of the Dying Destitutes, an operation run by the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta from which, after a couple of weeks, Mitchell suddenly bolts, overcome by the awfulness of caring for the dying destitute. But the upside of his failure is that he now understands the true meaning of the Jesus Prayer, the one Salinger’s Franny is hung up on: The prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” (repeated twelve times)—“had taken over and was saying itself in his heart.” No irony or humor there.

But the character who most engages us, and elicits from Eugenides first some quite buoyant but later some horrifying writing, is Leonard Bankhead, who is recovering from his breakdown, living with Madeleine first in Providence, then at a science institute on Cape Cod. He is also taking massive doses of lithium, which he finds “very good at inducing a mental state in which taking lithium seemed like a good thing.” The slowed-up effects of the drug are intolerable. Contemplating a statue of a Minuteman in Boston, he thinks, “If they’d been on lithium...they wouldn’t have been Minutemen. They would have been Fifteen-minutemen, or Half-hour-men. They would have been slow to get their rifles loaded and arrive on the battlefield, and by then the British would have won.” So, in a daring plan, he methodically reduces the daily dosage. The upshot is a manic high in which he walks to Provincetown, acts like a rogue male, buys seven bags of toffee, and kisses the surprised salesgirl behind the counter. Then, sexual desire fully regained, he goes home and after great sex asks Madeleine to marry him. The wedding takes place, only for the negative effects of lithium withdrawal to set in during the honeymoon in Monaco.

Madeleine, on her way to graduate school at Columbia, hoping to become a “Victorianist” and with a published article on Jane Austen under her belt, somewhat recedes in the book’s latter pages. Eugenides wants us to think about how the marriage plot must complicate itself in the twentieth-century novel; but the book’s end seems too cleverly rigged and self-delighting. Comparing Jeffrey Eugenides to some novelistic predecessors of a hundred years ago, one is struck by how relaxed and informal is his treatment of the novel form. Just for starters, think of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Ulysses, Virginia Woolf—not to mention that short novel The Waste Land. It’s as if, after all those passionate, modernist efforts to make the structure and tone of fiction at least as dense as in Flaubert or James, it’s time to loosen the reins, let things appear to take their courses without too strong a controlling hand.  Or perhaps Eugenides’ art is one that conceals art by—as he suggested in the conversation with Toibin—letting the prose “recede a bit,” a strategy that can make the hard business of planning and executing a novel look easy.

Published in the 2012-01-27 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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