Monday, October 15, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Chances are that this reader would like most any book that mentioned on its first page Edith Wharton, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austin, George Elliot, and the Bronte sisters. Jeffrey Eugenides in his newest novel, The Marriage Plot, not only mentions all these authors, but shows via one of his three lead characters that he has been deeply influenced by them all. The setting is the graduation ceremony at Brown University in the spring of 1982, and Eugenides adopts in turn the voices of each of his three main characters who are about to begin their new post-graduate lives. Interestingly, his most convincing voice is that of a female character, Madeleine, whose primary interest is in Victorian literature. “She’s become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Madeleine is pursued by two young men, Leonard, whose dual interests are biology and philosophy, and Mitchell, who is fascinated by religious mystics and people like St. Teresa and Albert Schweitzer whose focus is simply doing good in the world. Most likely, each of the three characters is a side of Eugenides himself, and so it is no wonder that each speaks convincingly.

As in his meticulously researched novel, Middlesex, Eugenides displays a deep understanding of the topics that interest him. In this novel these topics are manic depression, mysticism, and the role of the marriage plot in Victorian and pre-Victorian literature. He also manages to show his understanding of and sympathy for feminism, both through the voice of Madeleine and the rather clumsy attempts of his male characters to rise above, or at least be ashamed of, their sexism. 

Eugenides reminds us that women were restricted from owning and inheriting property in early Victorian Britain and restricted from participating in politics, and that it was under these conditions that Victorian women writers wrote their books. 
Seen this way, eighteenth—and nineteenth—century literature, especially that written by women, was anything but old hat. Against tremendous odds, without anyone giving them the right to take up the pen or a proper education, women such as Anne Finch, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, and Emily Dickenson had taken up the pen anyway, not only joining in the grand literary project but, if you could believe Gilbert and Fubar, creating a new literature at the same time, playing a man’s game while subverting it. Two sentences from The Madwoman in the Attic particularly struck Madeleine. “In recent years, for instance, while male writers seem increasingly to have felt exhausted by the need for revisionism which Bloom’s theory of the ‘anxiety of influence’ accurately describes, women writers have seen themselves as pioneers in a creativity so intense that their male counterparts have probably not experienced its analog since the Renaissance, or at least since the Romantic era. The son of many fathers, today’s male writer feel hopelessly belated: the daughter of too few mothers, today’s female writer feels that she is helping to create a viable tradition which is at last definitely emerging.”
But if Madeleine is attracted to the intelligence and relative independence of the women writers she so admires, she is nonetheless driven by the need to be recognized by the men in her life whom she still sees as intellectually superior. The summer after her graduation from Brown, instead of throwing all of her efforts into her own life and post graduate studies, she instead goes off to a biology think-tank with Leonard who has a fellowship there for the summer. And she does this in spite of the fact that on the very day of graduation, she discovers that Leonard is a manic depressive, and has (not for the first time) been committed to a psychiatric hospital. 

It is hard to imagine anyone trying to live with and care for someone who is manic depressive, and even harder to imagine a young woman in her twenties taking on this awesome responsibility. Eugenides takes the reader through a single summer of Madeleine trying to be the partner and caregiver of Leonard as his disease and the medication he uses to treat it lead him into a more and more isolated existence. Desperate to hide his illness from the scientists and co-fellowship students at the think-tank, he becomes ever more dependent on Madeleine, hating her to leave him even to play tennis or go to the city. “He didn’t want her to leave. If Madeleine left, he would be alone again, as he’d been growing up in a house with his family, as he was in his head and often in his dreams, and as he’d been in his room at the psych ward.” 

Meanwhile, Mitchell, the third voice in this story of young people struggling to find themselves in a complicated and unjust world, is traveling through India, reading religious mystics and trying to follow the example of St. Teresa. His character is the one least developed in this novel, and the least convincing. His quest makes him seem both younger and more na├»ve than the other characters, and yet it is primarily through him that Eugenides is able to give the reader some political commentary. Mitchell’s desperate but unrequited love for Madeleine, coupled with his yearning for purity and enlightenment, make him into an almost comic character, but one who nonetheless plays a pivotal role. He is perhaps more the actual mouthpiece for Eugenides that either of the other main characters.

In the end, I can’t say that this is a great or even a really good novel. I think Eugenides tries to do too much, too fast, and I have a hard time believing that his characters could really go through all the changes they do in a single summer. Perhaps he should have given them a few years to experience such life-changing events. Nevertheless, this is an interesting story, and Eugenides a gifted storyteller. It will leave you with much deeper understanding of the marriage plot and its role in both Victorian and contemporary novels, and perhaps give you a deeper understanding of the disease that is labeled manic depression.

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