I recently read and enjoyed The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is finding itself included on many a “Best of 2011” round-up. My reading experience, however, was one that, while enjoyable and stimulating, also felt somehow agitating.
Eugenides’s depth of character development and eschewing of current trends like “tight story arcs” was refreshing, and as an ex-PhD candidate in English, I certainly appreciated his half-satirical, half-lovingly-nostalgic portrayal of voraciously earnest English majors grappling with Derrida and Barthes. The novel’s primary protagonist is a young woman in her twenties, which in and of itself is refreshing, too, coming from a male author. And, of course, the prose itself is impeccable, in an old world, traditional, yet still modernly funny way.
What, then, is not to like?
Maybe that, though, is too simple a question. Throughout my read of The Marriage Plot, I couldn’t quite shake the sensation that I was reading a novel already half-a-century old, one that I “should” have read when I was in college (where I was not, in fact, an earnest English major but a rather cynical psych major) and was only getting around to now. This sensation isn’t surprising, of course: Eugenides, as the very title suggests, based the novel on the old Bronte/Austen-esque “marriage plot” phenomenon, which was at its height of popularity in the Victorian era. In particular, the novel seems to attempt to play with certain concepts of “madness” within such novels as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, investigating what a marriage infested with mental illness might truly “look like” through a modern lens.
All of these goals are worthy enough. I’m a sucker for a retelling of an old story (or a conglomerate of old stories, in this case). But I couldn’t help feel, for a variety of reasons, as though this particular retelling arrived fifty years too late, when not just the original story but the retold one already feels a bit dated and old.
Sabina Murray captures some of what I mean in this essay, originally published on The Nervous Breakdown, about gender and character development in both The Marriage Plot and in Franzen’s Freedom. I should add here that I have a lot to say about gender and Freedom, but that I don’t really agree with Murray’s central thesis that Patty—the only female character given a point of view storyline in Freedom—is “boring,” and, unlike Murray, I’d chat the hilariously irreverent Patty up over Walter (ho-hum) at a cocktail party anytime—if only to find out more than Franzen tells us about what Richard Katz was like in bed. But, I digress…
I agree with Murray, however, about Madeleine Hanna, the central protagonist of The Marriage Plot. Madeleine is not so much boring to read about, but she is a simple, mainly shallow, mainly uncomplicated human being, in the sense that knowing her in “real life” would add little complexity to one’s said real-life reality. I found this a core limitation of The Marriage Plot: whereas both Leonard and Mitchell, Madeleine’s two prospective suitors, are less than “likeable” at times, both are infinitely more layered, messy and compelling than she. This in and of itself can be problematic, since Madeleine is the character in whose mind we spend the most time… but the issue is more complicated than that, because it isn’t just that Madeleine is a bit dull, but more the particular “how” and “why” of her dullness.
Madeleine reads like a Victorian heroine. She is preoccupied with class-related manners and conventions; she is, through most of the novel, largely disinterested in the physical aspect of sex despite her preoccupation with romantic love; she feels—and probably is—intellectually inferior to both of her male love objects; she is, despite being an English major surrounded constantly by the works of writers who suffered mental turbulence, mainly alarmed, nervous and squeamish about the actual workings of a bipolar mind… and so on. But here is a crucial difference: we do not, as readers, judge Victorian heroines negatively for being Victorian heroines, because what else were they supposed to be? They were products of their time, as are we all. Madeleine Hanna, on the other hand, is a product of the 1980s. And so for being, in the end, such a fussy little priss, it is almost impossible not to judge her.
Eugenides aims not just to retell the “marriage plot” novel of a former era, but, of course, to subvert it. And this, of course, he does. It is probably no big “spoiler” to reveal that Madeleine’s story does not simply end with her obtaining a husband… and along the way, Eugenides has plenty of pot-smoking, European backpacking antics, and even a semi-hot spanking scene, none of which are likely to be found in the pages of original marriage plot novels. But his subversions are mild—by which I mean they would have seemed radical in 1960, around the time, say, Rabbit, Run was being published, and not for very long after. The idea that the “resolution,” for a female character, could be divorce (though Eugenides makes it a sanitary annulment instead, even) and going off to graduate school for a career—instead of marrying the “safe” male choice—would have been interesting fodder around the onset of Second Wave feminism. Here, post-Third Wave, it seems, at the very most, a given.
I mean, what if, instead of Leonard leaving Madeleine for her own good, Madeleine similarly self-destructed, becoming her own madwoman in the attic? (Or would that be too postmodern 1990s?)
Okay then: what if Madeleine discovered she liked that spanking so much she took a BDSM course and decided to make Mitchell her love slave, and she and Leonard and Mitchell became polyamorous? (If so, they might have been given their own 2012 reality TV show.)
Um, I’m kidding… mostly.
But come on. It’s been more than sixty years since the idea of a woman’s emancipation outside of marriage was anything resembling a “new” one in literature. Was the reader, then, even supposed to take Mitchell’s potential marriage proposal seriously? And is it really—troublingly—Eugenides’s intention to tell the contemporary reader that a character who suffers from mental illness is unsuitable for, and must be excluded from, the marriage plot altogether, eternally, for everyone’s own good? (Let’s face it: Leonard is a bit of a nightmare, but he’s pretty much the only person in the room here with whom I’d want to spend any serious time.) This novel is beautifully written and developed, and its concept is a subtle and compelling one, but it seems to belong already—ahead of itself—to “history.” It is the retelling our mothers’ generation needed, not our daughters’.