Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Marriage Plot

The book club at my public library branch will be discussing Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot at our next meeting. Prior to reading The Marriage Plot, I knew of Eugenides's work, from seeing the film, The Virgin Suicides, and reading his earlier novel, Middlesex. Gathering my thoughts and notes together for tomorrow, I find little positive to say about The Marriage Plot.

I understand what the marriage plot is, in literature. Indeed, I'm as interested in it as is Madeleine Hanna, one of the three principal characters in Eugenides's novel. Many classics of English literature are about marriage. Two examples are Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. In "marriage plot" novels the central character, a woman, has experiences, learns about life, and men, and may end up happily married to her soul mate. Or, a classic novel may subvert the marriage plot. Two examples are Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. , These show the drawbacks, limitations and failures of love and marriage. But in all of these novels, whether they are a journey to a happy marriage or a critique of marriage, the focus is on the woman's journey.   In Hardy's Tess, for instance, Tess is the central character, while the two men she's involved with (Alex and Angel) are supporting characters. Not so in Eugenides's novel. Madeleine is one of three young central charaters, the other two being Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, but she is not the heroine the way Tess is, or the way Jane Eyre is. The two young men get more space, and the one who gets the most is Mitchell Grammaticus.  The author is interested in the men's journey's (psychological and geographic, respectively) but not so much in Madeleine's.  Madeleine's journey, to the extent that she has one, is through an English department dominated by post-structuralists and deconstructionists. She spends part of the novel in a supporting role to Leonard.

The title also refers to Madeleine's decision to specialize in the Victorian novel, in which the marriage plot predominates. Also, throughout the novel, Mitchell appears to be plotting as to how he can marry Madeleine. But in spite of what Mitchell says to Madeleine at the end about marriage plots, Eugenides's novel is more of a coming of age story, like The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

The character I liked least, and the one the author seemed to like most, was Mitchell. The son of immigrant parents, Mitchell thinks he is in love with Madeleine, but it seems to me that he is fascinated by her upper class WASP background, envious of it, and has  love-hate feelings towards her and  what he calls the "big genteel boozy Hanna operation."

Mitchell seeks meaning in life through religion, but on his journey to Europe and India, instead of opening up to amazing sights and experiences, he keeps his nose in religious books and his mind on Madeleine.  His attitude toward Claire, his friend's girlfriend in Paris, is retrograde. When Claire discusses patriarchal attitudes in religion, Mitchell asks her if she's having her period.  We are told: "Under the pretence of becoming a critic of patriarchy, Claire uncritically accepted every fashionable theory that came her way."  Well, maybe, or it might just be that Claire is right! Also, if being immature and opinionated is a crime, then Mitchell is guilty too.

Leonard, Madeleine's friend and eventually, husband, is the most interesting character, because of his "manic depression" ; that is, bipolar disorder. (The novel is set in the 1980s when the former term was used.)  While I found Eugenides's descriptions of Leonard's feelings well-written and fascinating, I wondered what sources of information he used to research the condition.  (It is not verboten for a novelist to offer the reader a bibliography.)   Eugenides writes: "For a while, the disease, which was still nameless at the time, cooed to him. It said, Come closer. It flattered Leonard that he felt more than most people; he was more sensitive, deeper."  Really? I know someone with bipolar disorder who doesn't feel possessed of any special wisdom, but, at times,  feels dragged out and sick.  Is is the prognosis always as gloomy as Eugenides suggests?  Maybe so back in the 1980s.

Stylistically, I didn't like Eugenides's tendency to state what he was going to tell, then to backtrack and fill in the events and details.  This "stating the topic" is fine for a term paper or a speech, where you tell the audience what you're going to say, then say it, and then tell the audience what you said. In fiction, though, I prefer a writer who leads the reader  through the experiences, letting her be surprised, and letting her form her own impressions and conclusions.  As well, it was sometimes difficult to determine whether a passage expressed the character's thoughts  and feelings, or those of the omniscient author.

It seemed to me that Eugenides tried to do too much in one novel. The willfully obscure, inward-looking deconstructionists and post-structuralists that Madeleine encounters in her English literature studies are amusing, but that entire lengthy section detracts from the stories of the three young graduates, and is off-putting to readers who have studied in fields other than English literature.

On the whole, I was disappointed in The Marriage Plot. I'm wondering which member of the book group suggested that we read it. Maybe it was the omniscient librarian who supervises us.

1 comment:

  1. From beginning to end I loved this book - the three main characters are beautifully & fully formed - the intellectual & emotional drama depicted in the "plot" through these characters is so engaging & works successfully to the very end of the book.
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