The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

by Robert A. Parker

This 2011 work is an interesting novel, and extremely well written. But it is too long. Eugenides delves too much into the back history of his main characters, and too much into these characters’ area of study. His narrative approach is interesting, as he advances his triangular story of two male students and one female, but then he often backtracks to explain why they are acting as they are in the basic narrative.

     The main character is Madeline Hanna. We meet her in her graduation year at Brown University. She is fascinated by the brilliant student Leonard Bankhead, even after she learns he is a manic depressive and his conduct varies enormously. Meanwhile, the steady Mitchell Grammaticus, another Brown student, has fallen for her but is hesitant to reveal his true feelings.

     We spend a long time at Brown, as these three meet and interact, before following them out into the adult world. We also meet Madeline’s parents, Alton and Phyllida, who do not want to see their daughter tied down with a manic depressive. But they do not understand their daughter, and do become unsympathetic characters.

     Eugenides makes palpable the years at Brown by having Madeline, an English major, probe deeply into semiotics and deconstruction. She becomes a feminist evaluating the Victorian novelists. One cannot help but think the author is taking advantage of his own education, and I do think he probes more deeply here than is necessary.

     We see most of this story through Madeline, and some through Leonard, but there is a significant portion devoted to Mitchell as he travels to Europe and then to India, hoping that Madeline will get Leonard out of her system by the time he returns. In India, he volunteers to serve with Mother Teresa. (Note that Eugenides also volunteered with Mother Teresa.) It is not a successful experience, but expresses the religious yearnings that have long motivated Mitchell’s life.

     Madeline, meanwhile, is living with Leonard on Cape Cod, where he has a basic science job in the field of genetics. But the science investigations he is involved with never attain the credibility of Madeline’s English studies.

     I also did not sense the atmosphere of the Cape, or of the Boston they visit, but the work did earn some credibility from me when the author has Madeline’s married older sister living in Beverly, where I grew up. But, alas, Madeline never visits there.

     This work did not receive the enthusiastic reviews that Middlesex and Virgin Suicides received. And I can understand this, for, as I indicated, it is overwritten. It should have been a shorter work. It bogs down too much in details. But with my own prejudice, I also wonder how much this poor reception was influenced by Mitchell’s (and the author’s) interest in religion. How much did that turn off some reviewers? Did it make Mitchell unworthy of either Madeline, or of their own interest in the outcome of this triangle?

     The treatment of Leonard’s problem is also excessive. Eugenides wants the reader to understand Leonard’s problem, but he goes too far in explaining manic depression. But, on the other hand, he turns around the reader’s reaction to this character that Madeline is devoting her life to—unwisely, Mitchell believes, in behalf of the reader. For at the end, we have considerable sympathy for Leonard, based primarily on his awareness of his own condition and its impact on others.

     This acknowledgement is the key to the ending. It is an ending which I fully accept, even if for some it might not be a real ending, not one readers expect from a story today. And yet it is a literate ending—a, for me, satisfying ending. Note that it is also an ending that satisfies an author’s ideal goal, for it depends not on the final paragraph, not on the final line, but on the novel’s final word.

     The title The Marriage Plot, refers to an English thesis Madeline is writing at Brown. It analyzes the endings of old-fashioned Victorian novels that normally finds the heroine ending up happily married. And, indeed, Madeline’s own life, and this very novel, will also refer to the validity of that kind of ending. Note that when she has this thesis published, she brings it proudly to Mitchell—an acknowledgement that it is he who matches her temperament and her needs most closely.

     One does wonder how much of Eugenides himself is written into his character Mitchell. Did he yearn for a fellow student while at Brown? Is some of Mitchell’s shyness and reticence his own? Was this the germ of his story? And did he put all his feelings for that woman into the character of Madeline? It is not impossible. And yet it might also explain why this work is not a complete success. That he was too close to the actual experience, that he did not have the proper distance. All, I grant, to be mere speculation.

     It will be interesting to follow Eugenides subsequent work, because he is such a fine writer, a fine stylist. And he knows how to create interesting characters. Each work has been different so far, the one unifying element being the response by his characters to moving from adolescence into adulthood. May we expect an author now in his fifties to change this element? I say this, knowing also that most literary works explore the experience of protagonists who are in their twenties, as he or she discovers love and the burdens of life. (October, 2013)