Sunday, December 2, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot

In Who Cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The New Bollywood Romantic Comedy I asked, "in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible?"

This question is also central to Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). Madeleine Hanna is a Brown University undergraduate in the early 1980s who is somewhat adrift. "She'd become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read," the narrator tells us on page 20, and what she loves to read most of all are the the great but academically unfashionable 19th-century novelists: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Henry James.

The 19th-century novel is driven by the marriage plot, the heroine's crucial choice of her marriage partner, and Madeleine is also beset by romantic choices. It doesn't hurt that she's beautiful enough to carry off "the Annie Lennox look" (though she's a little premature: when she gets her new hairstyle in the fall of 1981, the Eurhythmics' Sweet Dreams won't be released for another year).* The earnest religious studies major Mitchell Grammaticus desperately wants to change his status from friend to lover, but is unsure how to go about it in the face of Madeline's lack of encouragement. Instead, her erotic interest is focussed on her Semiotics 211 classmate Leonard Bankhead, who is tall, handsome, and popular, but who is concealing a debilitating manic depression.

The novel is strongest, at least for me, in the scenes set at Brown. Eugenides evidently went to college around the same time I did, and he captures his characters' confusions, uncertainties and cultural referents so uncannily well that halfway through the book I turned to my partner and said, "I feel as though I could have written this book." A delusionary feeling, of course, but it does say something about Eugenides' skill that he could make his characters' dilemmas seem so real and his narrative read so effortlessly well.

The novel loses a bit of steam in the second half, as it follows the travails of Madeleine and Leonard, and Mitchell's soul-searching post-graduation trip to Europe and India. Here again, though, Eugenides nails the at times bewildering difficulties of making the transition to adulthood.

Eugenides' models for The Marriage Plot seem to be James' Portrait of a Lady (1881), Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence (1920), and especially Eliot's Middlemarch (1874): novels that don't end with the heroine's wedding, but continue into the compromises and unhappinesses of married life. Of course, we live in an age of premarital sex and easy divorce, which means that the heroine's choices have far fewer permanent consequences. Eugenides doesn't pretend that 19th-century mores still pertain; early in the novel he even has one of Madeleine's English professors declare that the novel is now defunct because the marriage plot is no longer possible:

...the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.  And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as [Professor] Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. (p. 22)

Eugenides seems to be setting himself the task of proving that the novel of romantic choice is still possible. As it turns out, he's up to something a little more complicated. Romantic choice for his characters is hugely important and emotionally fraught—but, perhaps, not quite as destiny-defining as it once was. Romantic choice is now only one of a range of decisions we have to make about the course of our lives. By the end of The Marriage Plot, each of the characters recognizes that there are no happy endings, only a series of beginnings. And while that may not be as satisfying as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy recognizing their true feelings for one another, in our contemporary world it's the best they, and we, can do.

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* I noticed another minor anachronism: Madeleine sees a girl in the library "who was unfortunately rather cute in a busty Bettie Page way" (p. 41). But The Betty Pages, the fanzine which sparked the resurgence of interest in 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, wasn't published until 1987.

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