In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides asks what would happen if nineteenth-century literature married twentieth-century theory, and the result is many brilliant novels in one: a romance, a coming-of-age story, a travelogue, an account of madness, and a tale of religious quest. Its protagonists are Brown University students, Class of 1982, which also makes The Marriage Plot a campus novel and a novel of ideas—let’s call this hybrid the syllabus novel. Like a campus novel, the syllabus novel exposes the personal foibles driving academic trends, but like a novel of ideas, the syllabus novel celebrates how books shape people’s lives.
Most of all, as its clever title announces, The Marriage Plot is both a realist story about marriage and a postmodern, metafictional commentary on the kind of story it tells. Marriage used to be the natural conclusion to any story, but it’s been over a century since novels could wrap up loose ends with a wedding. While the characters in The Marriage Plot take it for granted that one day they’ll marry, marriage is not the most likely outcome for twenty-two-year-olds who can exit marriage as easily, or uneasily, as they enter it. What happens to the marriage plot under these circumstances?
The novel follows Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard from their 1982 graduation through the summer of 1983. The fourteen months described here feel both irrevocably past—no computers or cell phones, lots of typed and handwritten letters—yet discouragingly familiar—Greeks are protesting, unemployment is high. English major Madeleine, poised but insecure, writes her thesis on the demise of the marriage plot. Reading Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse crystallizes her passion for Leonard, an arrogant, seductive scientist, the kind of guy who spends his first year in college “lifting his head from an act of cunnilingus long enough to take a bong hit and give a correct answer in class.” Mitchell, a sardonic Religious Studies student, pines after Madeleine, secretly convinced they are destined to marry, while she wishes he could be “a friend who wasn’t a girlfriend and wasn’t a boyfriend.” Agnostic but fascinated by mysticism, Mitchell travels in Europe and India after graduating, volunteers briefly for Mother Teresa, and returns home to test his feelings for Madeleine. In six titled parts, The Marriage Plot traces its characters’ romantic entanglements and disentanglements as each puzzles over God and the meaning of life; grapples with mental illness; and worries about GRE scores and grad school applications.
This is a novel about marriage and religion circa 1982 that could not have been written in 1982 (at least not by an author as sophisticated as Eugenides). Even in 2011, when marriage has regained some of its luster, a book called The Marriage Plot risks seeming as retrograde and implausible as marriage does to some of its characters—yet now, as then, people keep on marrying and writing about marriage. Of course, The Marriage Plot is not really about marriage; as its title announces, it’s about narrative and social conventions, about how the limited stories we tell about marriage constrain the stories we tell about ourselves.
In that sense, the book couldn’t be timelier; as recent debates about same-sex unions suggest, marriage remains a contentious issue, not least because it is such a capacious one. Marriage is about sex, love, and romance; it’s also about money, property, law, social status, personal preferences, religious beliefs, and political values. For some, it’s when our lives really start; for others, it’s when they come screeching to a halt. Marriage is the kind of mess on which novels thrive.
What happens to novels when marriage starts to raise more problems than it solves, to signify uncertainty as much as stability? “Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel,” pronounces one of Madeleine’s elderly male professors; “marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.” In her senior thesis, however, Madeleine tentatively suggests that a new kind of novel arose from the marriage plot’s ashes. The Marriage Plot is one of those phoenixes. Eugenides gambles that marriage means even more for novels after feminism and sexual revolution have made it as confused in theory as it has long been in practice. Literary critics have long observed that novels helped invent marriage as we know it, and that marriage plots, like marriage itself, can mean many things. Nineteenth-century novels assigned marriage the job of resolving contradictions and supplying closure, but spouses often die in Victorian fiction, paving the way for second marriages that correct the mistakes of first ones. Marriage plots appear to be about love between soulmates, but are really about self-interest and social advancement; they claim to be about choice, but reveal the limits on freedom. They are obviously about gender and the ties between men and women, but they are also about race, class, nation, and same-sex bonds.
The conceit of this novel is to ask what would happen to nineteenth-century marriage plots if they collided with late twentieth-century premises. What if Tolstoy’s Levin were a backpacker in India? if Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic were a bipolar guy worried about losing his insurance coverage? if the heroines of Trollope’s novels, instead of dithering between two suitors, chose not to marry at all? (Trollope tried to write that novel once, as Miss Mackenzie, but ended up caving.) What if a modern young man idealized marriage as intensely as any Victorian maiden?
In a 2009 New York Times article, Katie Roiphe criticized contemporary male writers for having “repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.” She didn’t mention Eugenides, but I imagine that this girly-man novelist extraordinaire (and I mean that as a compliment) is her worst nightmare—a male novelist who takes feminism seriously and identifies deeply with his female characters, but is thoughtful about how to do so. One third of this novel is told from a female character’s point of view; one of the book’s longest sentences is a paean to the Madeline books. Feminism inspires both The Marriage Plot and its characters, who learn from it even when it annoys them. Mitchell rages at the kneejerk feminism of a friend’s girlfriend, but has to concede some of her points about literature—and about him.
Indeed, The Marriage Plot suggests that its characters need more feminism, not less. Madeleine identifies with her feisty French namesake, but the narrator notes that “despite all her adventures, Madeline had never gotten any older than eight. That was too bad. Madeleine could have used some helpful examples. Madeline passing the baccalauréat. Madeline studying at the Sorbonne.” Despite feminist gains and a “faith in herself” that comes with being a retired college president’s daughter, Madeleine is unsure of herself for most of the novel. She blushes when asked to speak in semiotics class, happy to have Leonard come “to her rescue,” and spends much of the novel squinting through dried contact lenses and smudged, scratched glasses. Feminism eventually helps her to chart her future a little more clearly; along with religion, feminism informs Mitchell’s final illumination, in which he sees Madeleine in terms of her desires, not his. One of the book’s many achievements is to make such realizations deeply moving.
I won’t reveal how the novel ends, except to say that the last page’s riff on marriage and marriage plots dazzlingly blends the closure and sincerity of realism with the openendedness and self-referentiality of postmodernism. Indeed, the entire book can be thought of as a literary marriage plot, striving to unite realism and postmodernism. This merger of the two modes comes at a time when influential writers like Zadie Smith have been insisting that there are “Two Paths for the Novel” and urging serious fiction writers to divorce themselves from the realist one. Using the poststructuralist theory that Madeleine reads in The Marriage Plot, Smith faults realists for erroneously believing that language can portray reality and that people have coherent, knowable selves, and champions avant-garde authors whose work demonstrates the reverse.
Ultimately, The Marriage Plot suggests that the opposition between realism and postmodernism is a false one, but it’s easy to see why people fall into reductive comparisons of the two modes. Realism is a grownup putting on a suit; postmodernism is a teenager throwing a wild party and trashing the parental home. Realism is a well-behaved English major reading Austen and Dickens; postmodernism is a pink-haired comparative literature major reading Calvino and Pynchon.
The formal differences between realist and postmodernist form are easily schematized. Usually endowed with coherent, suspenseful plots, realist novels glide us into a fictional world whose governing principle is plausibility. While realism doesn’t purport to describe real events, it does aim to represent what readers believe could happen, and thus focuses on everyday life and ordinary people rather than on the supernatural or fantastic. Some realists focus on their characters’ inner lives, others on historical forces and social systems; the greatest ones do both, while making us forget that we are reading a story.
Postmodernism constantly draws attention to the fact that it is fiction. Madeleine’s semiotics classmate Thurston Meems articulates the postmodern credo: “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.” In postmodern works, obtrusive narrators leave stories unfinished, tell us how stories came to be written, and break frame to address readers and characters. Eugenides has until now been drawn to these techniques. The collective narrators of his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, remind us often that their laboriously constructed story remains incomplete; an omniscient unfertilized egg recounts much of his second novel, Middlesex. Postmodernists often eschew suspense and embrace hybrid subjects: “I was born twice,” Middlesex begins, “first, as a baby girl… and then again, as a teenage boy.” No secrets here, and no coherent protagonists either.
But The Marriage Plot also goes deeper into realist terrain than Eugenides’s earlier books. We have the great realist themes: lost illusions, choice of mate and profession, struggles with faith, doubt, and reason. We have French realism’s attention to dirt and shit, English realism’s preoccupation with sympathy, and protagonists forced, like Don Quixote, to face the gap between fantasy and reality. We have the timeframe typical of many great realist novels—Middlemarch, Great Expectations, and Vanity Fair—set thirty years before they were written, and just before a major technological change.To some extent, The Marriage Plot resolves the conflict between realism and postmodernism by conceding their differences and giving both equal air time. The title is pure postmodernism; this is flamboyantly a book about books, many of which are themselves about other books. Implicit and explicit allusions to literature and theory abound. The narrator introduces Madeleine by listing the books on her shelves; Mitchell frames his final proposal to Madeleine as a “literary question.” English professors could be kept very busy tracing how the plot recombines those of other novels; the penultimate part, for example, is a glorious mashup of Tender is the Night, Anna Karenina and Daniel Deronda. Characters quote Barthes and Derrida as gospel. While the book pokes fun at theory and its acolytes, its mockery is ultimately affectionate, given that the story replicates many of deconstruction’s great themes: writing versus speech, letters that miss their destination, the cultural construction of love and desire.
We also have realist technique. Snappy, dramatic dialogue establishes character and advances a suspenseful, absorbing plot. Telling details support deft social observations: Madeleine “associated bandannas with hacky sack, the Grateful Dead, and alfalfa sprouts, all of which she could do without,” a crisp assessment that also places the assessor. The book’s realism is also about what’s missing: no poetic excurses, no swooping over panoramic vistas, no zooming out to contemplate the cosmos, no tortured explanations of how the narrator pieced together the story we’re reading.
Instead, an unobtrusive narrator gives us realism degree zero: graceful but unremarkable reportage that moves smoothly between external and internal positions, staying very close to the characters’ perspectives, rarely making comments they couldn’t make themselves. In the external position, the narrator reports what characters do, usually from a near distance, as though right next to them or describing how they see themselves (“She needed to wash up first”). In the internal position, the narrator describes what the characters think (“It occurred to her that she hadn’t had sex, not really”) and perceive (“She could see her parents waiting below”). Sometimes the narrator’s voice merges with a character’s, in the technique known as free indirect discourse (“Hadn’t they just gotten out of college?… How could Larry have a girlfriend like that?”). Identifying the narrator closely with the characters helps maintain the realist illusion that to read a novel is to enter a world and commune with its denizens.
Yet The Marriage Plot helps us see the postmodern strains of classical realist technique. Consider the novel’s handling of time and space. The novel takes place over a short period of time, around fourteen months, but it covers much more than that, because almost every section nests flashbacks within flashbacks. Even as the plot moves forward, it’s almost always moving back, then forward again, circling in on itself. A typical twenty-page section of “Pilgrims,” the novel’s second part, starts with Mitchell in Paris in late August, backtracks several years earlier, returns to Paris, shifts to Michigan in June, returns to Paris, then reverts to Manhattan in July. This isn’t unusual—even before modernism, a realist novel like Daniel Deronda adopted a similar structure—and that’s the point. Realism is weird.
What makes such time travel plausible is the narrator’s intimacy with the characters. In the example above, we move back in time because the narrator is inside Mitchell’s head; as Mitchell trudges through Paris in late August, his thoughts return to June and July. But how did the narrator get inside Mitchell’s head? And if the narrator is in his head, why narrate in the past tense instead of the present? Once you start to think about it—and the debates about literature that open this novel prompt us to do so—point of view only makes realism seem more surreal.
Realism depends on a sci-fi entity we call “the narrator,” who can enter and exit characters at will. The Marriage Plot occupies the viewpoints of three characters (Mitchell, Madeleine, and Leonard) for long stretches, and often recounts the same months and events from their varying perspectives. For example, the third part of the novel, which adopts Leonard’s point of view, covers material we also see from Madeleine’s perspective in the first and fifth parts. It’s common for authors to switch point of view to advance the plot, but more than most, Eugenides uses this technique to reveal how differently Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard perceive the same events (a drunken evening, a fight in a car). In this way, realism, like postmodernism and its modernist precursors, provides “access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality”—to cite a Derrida quote that baffles Madeleine, but aptly describes the novel in which she appears.
In some ways, then, The Marriage Plot shows how realism is always already postmodern. In others, it’s an unapologetic tribute to unreconstructed realism. The story illustrates the postmodern premise that life imitates art, since its characters realize themselves by reading. But for that reason, what they read matters, and it’s notable that the main characters immerse themselves in realist novels and religious writings, not deconstruction, and imitate the books that seem most real to them. Madeleine loves Barthes because “[h]ere was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling.” Reading St. Teresa of Avila, Mitchell singles out what sounds “authentic… You could tell the difference between someone making things up and someone using metaphorical language to describe an ineffable, but real, experience.” Too postmodern to believe that we can separate reality from reading, Eugenides nevertheless sees the effort to grasp the real in language as worth undertaking, even if doomed to error and incompleteness.
If, like Eugenides, you started out postmodern, then it stands to reason that your midlife crisis will be an affair with realism. (It’s also fairly likely that realist novels were your true first love.) “Killing the father was what… college was all about,” contends one of Madeleine’s early boyfriends. The father he wants to kill is Godard, which hilariously captures the futility of an aesthetic premised on endless rebellion, ceaseless innovation, and the quest for absolute originality. What could be more commonplace than killing the father? And how could anyone ever be more avant-garde than Godard? Like Thurston Meems, postmodernists reject realism because they believe that a literary approach we’ve encountered “‘a million times… doesn’t have any power anymore.’” But asking that literature endlessly reinvent itself has its own weaknesses. The relentless drive to “make it new” becomes predictable, and mimics consumer culture at its most desperate. Madeleine signs up for semiotics class to “find out what everyone else was talking about,” aware that it has created “a campus lit-crit elite” that separates “the cool from the uncool.” For her and her friends, deconstruction is a trend that provides entry into an exclusive club. The desire to be radically original can itself become an orthodoxy.
The Marriage Plot explores what happens if we surrender to repetition and relinquish the desire to be original and exceptional. Eugenides mines the history of the novel, Madeleine imitates Barthes, Mitchell repeats a prayer. Only Leonard refuses to follow anyone, with dire results. Instead of the anxiety of influence, The Marriage Plot gives us the euphoria of influence. Rather than try to kill his literary parents, Eugenides embraces as many of them as possible: theorists, critics, theologians, and novelists; writers realist and postmodern, highbrow and lowbrow, male and female, straight and gay.
Eugenides has always written about characters wanting to have it both ways, who seek a balance between observation and participation, normalcy and deviance. The adult men who narrate The Virgin Suicides try to reconcile lust and empathy. In Middlesex, the United States veers between boom and bust, the main character between girl and boy. The protagonists of The Marriage Plot strive to balance mania and depression; the novel suggests that neither pole is avoidable, but that there’s a measured happiness to be found in relinquishing the need to be unique.
The Marriage Plot is a remarkably well-crafted and thoughtful book, and a delight to read. It is an outstanding novel: self-aware and seamless, funny and moving, as smart as it is entertaining. But be warned: it mines a vein of sincerity that may appall those who prefer the mannered self-consciousness of The Virgin Suicides; its subtle technique and modest scale—two or three seniors on an Ivy League campus—may disappoint those who loved the outsized ambition of Middlesex. Like most realist novels, The Marriage Plot is about compromise. It is itself a compromise between realist and postmodern form, and it tracks the compromises its characters make. In nineteenth-century novels like Lost Illusions and Sentimental Education, compromise means the betrayal of youthful and revolutionary ideals. Eugenides offers a more generous take on compromise as the reconciliation of reading and writing, originality and imitation, books and life, aesthetic closure and openended experience. Rather than debate whether realism or postmodernism is the proper path for the novel, Eugenides shows that for a seasoned practitioner to whom nothing is foreign, it is possible to be in two or three places at the same time.