Deconstructing The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Literature, loosely defined, is imaginative writing, blending into philosophy and most recently, literary criticism itself.  What then does it mean to have a literature degree?  And does it add value to the lives of those who pursue it?  The painstaking communication of cultural context in literature courses via mountains of footnotes explaining everything from contemporary historical events to the slang used by narrators and characters has traditionally been a large and sometimes dominant part of traditional literature courses; at the time the novel was set, in the early 1980s, deconstructionism/semiotics; informed more by psychology, sociology and new discipline of feminist philosophy; challenged this approach by questioning the authority with which anyone could claim to understand an author's intentions.  Eugenides himself took academic religion courses to get the background knowledge necessary to understand some of the classics of English literature, his actual college major, as he explained in an interview.  Literature majors at this time driven by talent and/or personality to write and to analyze faced an especially rocky road on the way to defining their intellectual identity, while their more passive counterparts could sail through with much less intensity, according to the angry message of this new novel.

The subject of this book has obvious appeal to those literature, religion and philosophy majors who feel (or once felt) a true vocation in their academic focus.  The role of humanities education has gone though a dizzying series of change over the centuries with the demands of culture: the ancient Greeks sought the keys to living a good life; the medieval Europeans emphasized Biblical exegesis, from which literary criticism developed; British boys were offered the military lessons of the Roman classics as a model for their later role controlling the empire that the British imposed on Asia in the nineteenth century; in colonial America, the upper class studied what we call the "liberal arts" today to obtain the intellectual skills needed for leadership success, which evolved in more modern times into lessons on how to perform one's duties as a citizen in a representative democracy.  Twentieth century English-language literature saw a continuing trend away from the concerns of society and toward that of the inner lives of introverted individuals.  Meanwhile, the literature studied in these courses continued to be produced at the same time as the academic study of literature, aimed at an increasingly wider reading audience, making the situation even more complex. 

The deconstructionists might cry foul, but since the author's obvious apparent ego, Mitchell Grammaticus, is a Greek-American, I'll take the liberty of seeing the novel in terms of classical Greek philosophy.  The three main characters each struggle with blind spots with regard to one of the three ideals, beauty, goodness and truth, to which the human spirit aspires and which are typically in character-testing conflict.   Madeleine, an unusually attractive traditional English Lit student who is eventually inspired to insightful writing by the coming and going of novels that end, happily, in marriage, has her perspective distorted by her beauty.   However, she is the only one of the three whose superficial characteristics are not described, though we are reminded regularly of her attractiveness and the power it gives her; she wastes that power on a series of relationships and one-night stands with unsuitable romantic interests.  We also learn that her looks also are instrumental in making her her parents' favorite child, while her less visually appealing older sister, Alwyn, struggles with poor self-esteem, without a real support system.  Madeleine looks to Victorian literature and, for the one semester she spends testing the semiotics waters, The Lover's Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes, for guidance about love, being led down the primrose path by both.  She enjoys her passive and sensation-guided life, but does not analyze the world around her or feel stirred emotionally by the sadness in it.  As the novel drags on, the void left by this lack of descriptive detail, typically abundant in traditional novels, reminds us that when truth means sticking to the universally obvious, it lacks a crucial persuasiveness. 

The author, however, has no more mercy on Leonard, whose compulsive pursuit of truth leads him to a continual series of dead ends as he studies philosophy and biology and tries to make a relationship with Madeleine work without any definable reference points.   His appearance and habits are described in such detail that at least one critic has claimed that he was modeled on the novelist David Foster Wallace.   It is hard to imagine a mentally ill, self-absorbed and rather confused individual as having irresistible charismatic power over women, but Eugenides pulls out all the stops in his effort to accomplish this in the Leonard character and is surprisingly successful.  Along the way, we can see Leonard's essential flaw as being in denial about the great power of beauty over him and about the comfort that disciplined goodness can offer.  Being seen as wanting in the eyes of those who matter to him hurts him keenly, but he lacks the insight of empathy.  There is nothing in his education or upbringing to help him to see the purpose of the Golden Rule, taken for granted by academe.

Mitchell, unlike Leonard, recognizes intellectually that his attraction to Madeleine is not good.  A humorless, intense individual who seems indifferent to his appearance (which is not helped when he shaves his head for purposes of comfort), he discovers a talent for religious philosophy in a senior year class, but recoils from attending a seminary when encouraged to do so by his teacher, a closet Christian professor who mistakenly sees a kindred soul in him. He spends a year attempting to make his perception of goodness, perhaps most aptly described by the Catholic principle of "right relationship," the center of his life.  But at the hostel he stays at in India and at Mother Teresa's hospital, he despairs at the lack of dignity that seems to characterize the lives of all around him, aggravated rather than mitigated by the inevitable nature of nursing care in the case of the terminally ill.  Mystical experience, about which he speaks articulately and with authority in a theoretical discussion with Leonard, eludes him in these sordid circumstances.  An dyed-in-the-wool intellectual, Mitchell fails to realize that goodness cannot be achieved without the involvement of the heart.

This is not the end of the Greek philosophy references.  Some of the various types of love the Greeks classified are represented here.  Madeleine feels storge, a friendly type of affection, for Mitchell.  Leonard, though plagued with clinical mania, shares eros, a sexually satisfying if often short-lasting connection, with Madeleine in his sunnier moods.   But the naturally rationalist Mitchell feels mania for Madeleine; his feelings for her are irrational throughout, their relationship essentially joyless and founded on an almost complete lack of mutual understanding. 

That much seemed straightforward to me.  But in the end, the plot was full of ironies.  The book turned out not to be so much about the characters' academic experiences as about how their superficial college experiences led them to repeat history, to make the mistakes that conventional novel characters would have made had the plots of these novels not been so contrived.  Madeleine first impresses a professor in her senior year with a paper tracing the brief history of novels with "the marriage plot," i.e., which culminates in the heroine's marriage to the man who meets her often ambitious and contradictory criteria.   This is the first step she takes toward a successful definition of her career concentration, i.e., Victorian studies.  But this topic of study turns out to be no more relevant to her personal life than Leonard's study of yeast reproduction is to his.   When I sat down to read the book, I looked forward to a story of a strong woman using the prolonged courtship conventions of the past to negotiate a personal relationship of respect and de facto equality with the man whom she falls in love with, a story found in the classics of "marriage plot" novels.  Instead, Madeleine's one moment of assertiveness, when she throws the Barthes book in Leonard's face and runs out of the room when he makes light of her declaration of love, gains her no ground with him; his response is hardly the expected lively attempt to reestablish communication, giving due respect to the unpredictability of passionate feeling.  Instead, he backs off, retreating into mental illness to punish her, and she loses the moorings that anything she has learned previously might have given her.

Leonard, on the other hand, seems to pick up the spirit of the Barthes book, which suggests that romantic love is merely a seductive delusion.  But even as he prides himself on being immune to this form of madness, he falls prey to others undiscussed in any of his courses.  Although he achieves some measure of intellectual and sexual fulfillment, his heart remains untouched.  Mitchell as a character suffers a common problem shared by authors' alter egos: he clearly believes that nearly everyone else in the story, even his air-headed traveling companion, Larry, is really much more interesting than he is, skillfully hiding a rich inner life that is inexplicably inaccessible to him.  Did anyone wonder how Leonard would fare deprived of psychotherapy in a harsh, isolated environment for the better part of a year?  Did Mitchell ever wonder if his tendency to judge everyone except Madeleine, especially the kindly but alienated religious philosophy professor who reaches out to him, so harshly would make it prohibitively difficult for him to keep to the path of a spiritual journey?  

A trope, in case you were wondering, is a culture-specific cliché, an artificial construction that is taken for granted by its culture to represent universal human reality.  I think it would be safe to say that this book considers romantic love to be a trope.



Barthes, R.; R. Howard, tr. (1979) A lover's discourse: fragments. 

Deresiewicz, W. (2011) Jeffery Eugenides on liberal arts graduates in love http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/books/review/the-marriage-plot-by-jeffrey-eugenides-book-review.html?pagewanted=all

Eugenides, J. (2011) The marriage plot.  NY:Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Eugenides, J. and S. Mansoor (2011) Jeffey Eugenides on The Marriage Plot: video interview http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/video/2011/dec/01/jeffrey-eugenides-marriage-plot-video-interview

Mattlin, D. (2011) Jeffrey Eugenides' latest novel The Marriage Plot eplores modern love http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/jeffrey-eugenides-latest-novel-the-marriage-plot-explores-modern-love

Scruton, R. (2011) Why beauty matters.  Retrieved 14 December 2011 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csBzlE-PQOU&feature=share 

Author not given: http://curledupwithabook.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/a-lovers-discourse-fragments-by-roland-barthes/

Author not given: A marriage plot full of intellectual angst: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/11/140949453/a-marriage-plot-full-of-intellectual-angst

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