For many years, I have lived in two not-so-different worlds. I became a therapist born out of a deep fascination for understanding human behavior and the need to help others. My love of literature developed from a genuine love of reading and the need to improve myself. Books have been my therapy, providing support when I often needed it the most. Reading is a necessary solace that I will never abandon. Prior to reading The Marriage Plot, I knew Jeffrey Eugenides in name alone. He had developed quite the reputation with his novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex so I figured it was high time I read one of his books. As I finished the last page of The Marriage Plot, I decided that I would indeed like to explore more of the world through the eyes of Jeffrey Eugenides. This book deals with both literature and mental illness, and I was left completely satisfied with this poignantly realistic novel.
The Marriage Plot takes place in the 1980’s during a period of both political and literary upheaval. Something that I have discovered about myself as a fiction reader is that I prefer straightforward story lines with fewer characters. This desire could be attributed to my problems with focus, as I often lose sight in a novel that holds dozens of characters. Fortunately, this book focuses on three primary characters as they graduate college and move into the real world completely unprepared. Since I found a quality that I identified in each of the protagnonists, I thought I would briefly examine each one rather than the novel as a whole.
“She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
I loved the beginning of this book, an examination of the personal library of our heroine Madeleine Hanna. The opening paragraph is brilliantly written and provides great insight into Madeleine’s character. It is the day of college graduation, but she is no mood to celebrate or entertain her visiting parents. We soon discover her reasons as the novel time jumps to the beginning of her college career and her relationship with Leonard Bankhead. As insufferable romantic, Madeleine is often unprepared for love in the big scary world. Considering this book is written by a male, I thought Eugenides did a fantastic job of creating an extremely believable female character. While there were many moments I wanted to scream through the pages at Madeleine’s lapse of judgement when it came to men, I can see that the author was being faithful to creating a character that had only lived through authors like Austen and Eliot prior to entering the real world.
Back when I was in college many years ago, I remember taking a course on literary theory. I was filled with excitement at the thought of finally developing an understanding of all of the authors I had read. My experiences were actually quite overwhelming as I tried to understand theorists like Derrida and Barthes. Madeleine’s experiences in her theory class brought back memories of that turbulent time. I had to laugh at the typical know-it-all that one usually finds in a class such as this one. The 1980’s witnessed a change in how one approached literature. There was a movement happening regarding theory and how one viewed and appreciated the classics. I often found myself sympathizing with Madeleine’s plight as she worked to figure out the right direction with its complications from the two men in her life.
“That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.”
When she first met him during her final year in college, Leonard Bankhead was the type of brooding intellectual that all the girls wanted. Madeleine found herself quite infatuated with him and soon the two were dating. Underneath Leonard’s cool demeanor, however, was a huge secret that Madeleine would discover on graduation day. Her boyfriend suffers from Bipolar Disorder (referred to here as Manic Depression as this was the 1980’s). We soon follow the two from college to a scientific facility on Cape Cod where Leonard has accepted a job as a research assistant. Their courtship and eventual marriage lead Madeleine to question if this is truly the right man for her.
I thought Eugenides did an excellent job of writing about Leonard’s struggles with having Bipolar Disorder. He also did well in capturing the stigma associated with mental health as Leonard was often viewed by Madeleine’s family and friends as being a bad person rather than someone suffering from a mental illness. Once the discovery is made about Leonard’s hospitalization, the power dynamics change in his relationship with Madeleine. I was pleased when we gained some insight into Leonard’s childhood as that helped me develop more caring for his character. While finding him to be unapproachable at the beginning, I learned to understand him much better.
“People don’t save other people. People save themselves.”
The other man in Madeleine’s life is Mitchell Grammaticus, a friend who is looking for answers to the mysteries of life. His one certainty is that Madeleine is destined to be his soulmate. The problem is that he appears to forever be stuck in the friend zone. Following college, Mitchell and his friend Larry spend several months backpacking in Europe before visiting India. Although it changed throughout my reading, Mitchell ended up as my favorite of the three characters. I found myself feeling sorry for him after being rejected by Madeleine who would rather save Leonard than save herself. Mitchell, however, searches for the answers to life through various religions. Although he does not find the answers he is seeking, I appreciate his efforts.
There are no simple answers in this world. Life throws many obstacles in the path to our own happiness. Whether we seek the answers through therapy, religion, or even literature our only hope is that we make the best choices possible with the knowledge we have.
Eugenides wrote The Marriage Plot as a way of examining this device in the rise of feminism. Although Madeleine has more options that a character out of a Jane Austen novel, she was still often stuck in a difficult situation. Her relationship with Leonard was not only challenging but its ending could serve to ruin her. As far as the ending goes, I think it worked beautifully for the story. Eugenides succeeded in providing us a novel with a marriage plot that was perfectly relevant to our times.
“The lover’s discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”