That's What She Read: The Marriage Plot By Jeffrey Eugenides
By Lily Yengle '13
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 1, 2013 01:02
Early 20th century literature is riddled with the ‘marriage plot’ – one girl, two gentlemen suitors, and a clear-cut winner for her affections. This classic plot arc is what Eugenides, and his protagonist Madeleine Hanna, critique in his latest epic, The Marriage Plot.
If this were a typical work of classic literature, Madeleine’s choice between Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus would be easy. One would be revealed as being a gold-digging scoundrel and one would prove his true love. Madeleine would choose the latter and they would live happily ever after. This is 1982, at Brown University, and these brilliant post-grads are not Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham. Leonard is wickedly intelligent, struggling between the mania that makes him hyper-alert and reckless with spontaneity, and the crippling depression that brings his high inevitably crashing down. Mitchell is a serious religious studies major, fanatically trying to fit himself into a religion and to follow the precedence of selflessness set by Mother Teresa. And then there is Madeleine, following her whims, both academically and romantically, and trying to keep up with the consequences of her choices.
Eugenides’ third work had big shoes to fill (his last book Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize), but his three novels, written years apart, are varied enough that they are hard to compare on the same plane. Literary critics have said that The Marriage Plot reads like a debut novel, which may be partly due to the cliché of the struggling post-grads, and to the evident connections between Eugenides’ life and that of his characters (he was also a student at Brown in the 1980s). There have also been suggestions that Leonard Bankhead was inspired by fellow author David Foster Wallace, while Mitchell Grammaticus, like Eugenides, traveled around Europe, ventured to volunteer in Calcutta, and struggled with religion.
To me, the underlying autobiographical basis infers a lack of creativity, but rather adds to the realism. Though his plots vary, Eugenides’ mastery of language remains as he captures the oscillations of mania and depression and the paradox of the twenty-somethings—who are both vulnerable and invulnerable. For seniors, the plight of the postgrads may hit a little close to home, but I loved the characters for their all-to-familiar behaviors, ambitions and doubts.