"A Difficult Dialectic: Reading the Discourses of Love in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot" by Laura E. Savu
Laura E. Savu earned her PhD in English from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in May 2006. She is an independent scholar, currently living in Columbia, SC. Prior to moving back to the U.S. two years ago, she was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern Language at the University of Bucharest, where she taught in the American Studies Program. In addition to her book Postmodern Postmodernists: The Afterlife of the Author in Recent Narrative (2009), she has published essays and reviews in Intertexts, Prose Studies, Papers on Language and Literature, ARIEL, symploke, and the online journal [Inter]sections. Email:
loving: I want to possess fiercely, but I also know how to give, actively.
Then who can manage this dialectic successfully?
In a TV commercial depicting a young couple in a bar, the woman says to the man, “I love you.” He tries to respond several times with the same words but just cannot get the words out. While he is struggling with this, the waitress comes up and asks if he would like another beer. He responds, “I’d love one.” The look of hurt on the woman’s face says it all. “Love” gets thrown around a great deal in our consumer culture, being overly identified with pleasure and self-gratification, rather than suffering and self-giving. As such, “love” is what Roland Barthes calls a “socially irresponsible word,” by turns a “sublime, solemn, trivial word” or an “erotic, pornographic word” (148). In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), Barthes points out that, “Those who seek the proffering of the word (lyric poets, liars, wanderers) are subjects of Expenditure: they spend the word, as if it were impertinent (base) that it be recovered somewhere” (154). Moreover, “no love is original,” being “born of literature, able to speak only with the help of its worn codes” (Barthes 23). These codes inscribe a prefabricated system of desires—the system of popular culture, mass media, and advertising—which, to recall Umberto Eco’s famous statement in Postscript to The Name of the Rose, makes it impossible to talk innocently about love (Eco 532-33).
A Lover’s Discourse figures prominently in Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, The Marriage Plot (2011), a nuanced exploration of the lived experience of love as well as of the various discourses on it. With narrative detachment, Eugenides traces the sentimental education of three Brown University students in the early 1980s, during the heyday of deconstruction: the “incurably romantic” (3) Madeline Hanna, her spiritually inclined friend Mitchell Grammaticus, and her brilliant but manic-depressive boyfriend Leonard Bankhead. The three of them keep crossing paths during college, then part after graduation as they try to find their way in the real world and forge their own identities. Eugenides inhabits their minds and hearts from an omniscient, all-knowing perspective grounded in the intellectual atmosphere of Brown University, the author’s alma mater, as well as in the religious, social, and sexual conventions prevailing in the early 1980s.
As I argue, Eugenides seeks not so much to reinvigorate the tired trope of marriage as to interrogate its foundations by “return[ing] to the root of all relations, where need and desire join” (Barthes 224). For, as Barthes recognizes and Eugenides himself suggests through his characters’ emotional struggles, “There is not only need for tenderness, there is also need to be tender for the other: we shut ourselves up in a mutual kindness, we mother each other reciprocally” (224). In addition to romantic passion (eros), The Marriage Plot is powered by several other forms of love—known in Greek as philia (friendship), storge (parental love), agape (the word used in the New Testament to indicate God’s sacrificial love for us), and last but not least, bibliophilia (love of books) —that determine the protagonists’ actions and shape their destinies. In exploring these forms of love, Eugenides invites us to reflect on the questions they open about mind and body, need and desire, self and other, narcissism and altruism, ideal and reality. How, for instance, does a partner’s mental illness affect the power dynamics in a love relationship? Can sexual attraction coexist with the desire to care for and cherish the partner? Does the pursuit of happiness free us of the obligation to think of others, or does it speak to a more profound, even spiritual longing? Finally, what impact do both deconstructionism and feminism have on the representation of love in the contemporary novel?
In pursuit of these questions, I will focus on the love triangle at the center of The Marriage Plot as well as on the sustained dialogue that Eugenides carries with both literary history and cultural theory. This dialogue is motivated by the author’s stated interest in making something new without abandoning character and plot, two essential elements of storytelling (“How I Stopped Worrying”). In each of his former novels, Eugenides experiments with form—by using multiple first-person perspectives in The Virgin Suicides (1993) or mixing genres in Middlesex (2002)—as well as content, by having a hermaphrodite narrate Middlesex. His latest novel, the author has confessed, arose out of “an act of literary adultery,” as he reached “an impasse” in the writing of Middlesex. Writing about Greeks in Asia Minor in 1922, he realized, did not render the novel “new,” just as the so-called “multicultural” novel dealing with a 19th-century subject matter like marriage “isn’t really new at all” either (“How I Stopped Worrying”). As Professor Saunders, Madeleine’s elderly thesis director, explains in The Marriage Plot, with modern relationships becoming more open and flexible, marriage has lost its traditional weight and, with it, its appeal for novelists (22). By 1900, the marriage plot, which had given rise to the novel and reached its twin peaks in Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady, became obsolete, surfacing later only in historical fiction or multicultural novels, “non-Western novels involving traditional societies” (23, 22).
What Eugenides strives for—but only partially achieves in The Marriage Plot—is “hybrid vigor,” a mixture of “character-driven reality” and “formal play,” of psychological realism and avant-garde techniques (“What Is a Multicultural Novel”). Though character takes center stage in The Marriage Plot, the book has struck reviewers as nostalgic in its details as well as form (Gordon), championing traditional storytelling (Agger). Eugenides himself was bothered by how “old-fashioned” the first hundred pages of the novel felt, “a pallid replica of a 19th-century novel” (“How I Stopped Worrying”). With the line “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love” (19), the story about a wealthy family throwing a debutante party “felt fresher, more energetic and alive”—in a word, contemporary.
One might argue, however, that even such metafictional touches are hardly new, for The Marriage Plot takes its place alongside the campus novels of the 1980s that are informed by literary and cultural theory, more specifically, by French poststructuralism, which made its way into Anglo-American university curricula in the early 1970s.1 It was then, under the influence of the French poststructuralists—Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Kristeva—that a “lover’s discourse” became an object of academic criticism. Until then, love as a literary subject had been studied “mostly by Freudian psychoanalytic critics in terms of human sexuality, eroticism, or sentimental romance” (Wang xv). As we will see shortly, The Marriage Plot reflects its author’s ambivalent attitude towards theory in general, and towards Barthes’s deconstruction of love in particular.
Though the novel works in several intellectual registers (semiotics, biology, religion, and philosophy), it illuminates the emotional truths at the heart of life, more specifically, the “psychology of love” that Richard Terdiman has defined as “the working out of discourses and representations to make sense of love” (475, 474). To quote Eugenides, “you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to.” For him, this has to do with memories of being “young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused,” which perfectly describes the novel’s main characters (“How I Stopped Worrying”). Once Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell find themselves in desire’s grip, they cannot escape the anxiety described by Barthes: “What will the world, what will the other do with my desire? That is the anxiety in which are gathered all the heart’s movements, all the heart’s ‘problems’” (52). In giving them their own “book,” Eugenides presents us with three different discourses on love, each driven by memory and desire, riddled with conflicts and contradictions, and bound up with other discourses—those “systems of meaning imposed from outside, from culture and tradition and blind faith” (“Joyce”). For The Marriage Plot reminds us that “literature” is an intertextual system in which books “always speak of other books,” while also speaking to readers in concrete situations. From A Lover’s Discourse and William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience to Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, books both frame the characters’ world and enlarge it, triggering self-scrutiny or allowing them to step outside themselves.
The Incurably Romantic
but to have their importance confirmed
(Eugenides, Marriage 79).
The novel’s opening line—“To start with, look at all the books”—draws us into Madeline’s world of books, classics of English literature from Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot to Dickens, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, as well as the Colette novels she read “on the sly” and Updike’s Couples she uses to provide “textual support” in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot (3). Her obsession with these “musty old books” shapes her romantic expectations, of which her college love life falls short until she meets Leonard during the spring semester of her senior year (21, 29). As I show in this part of the essay, not only does Madeline’s idealized perception of love clash with her feminist understanding of gender relations, but it is also challenged by the reality of Leonard’s affliction, which further complicates the power dynamics in their relationship.
Set in 1982, The Marriage Plot begins on graduation day at Brown University in Providence, a town Eugenides recalls as corrupt, crime-ridden and mob-controlled, although on College Hill this is hard to see, for “The sheer physical elevation suggested an intellectual one” (9-10). Madeline’s parents, Alton and Phyllida, have driven up from New Jersey to see her graduate. Unlike Phyllida, who has always been a stickler for proper etiquette, Madeline feels out of step with “the social and academic pageantry,” particularly on this morning, when her mood far from celebratory (11, 5). She is hung-over after a “night of epic drinking” and puzzled by a stain near the hem of her dress “she didn’t want to identify” (6). The story of how that suspicious stain got there provides insight into Madeline’s romantic anguish following her break-up with Leonard three weeks before.
Madeline met Leonard in Semiotics 211, for which she had signed up mainly because the discipline was considered hip: “Years of being popular had left her with the reflexive ability to separate the cool from the uncool” (25). The esoteric nature of the readings required in the Semiotics seminar taught by Professor Michael Zipperstein—a New Critic-turned-poststructuralist after meeting Roland Barthes at a dinner party in Paris—gives his students a sense that they have been chosen as part of a “campus lit-crit elite” (20).2 Looking around her on the first day of class, Madeline could not help noticing that, everyone in the room was “so spectral-looking” that her “natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan” (25). Moreover, semiotics was “the first thing that smacked of revolution” in “the moneymaking eighties,” as it dealt with “provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism—with sex and power” (24). From this perspective, The Marriage Plot comes off as less ambitious and provocative than a Marquis de Sade novel or even than Eugenides’s Pulitzer-prize winning Middlesex: “Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeline and most her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France” (24).
Yet Madeline’s reasons for taking the class are not entirely shallow. In addition to wanting to “find out what everyone else was talking about,” (25) she needed “a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read” (24). Thus, if her reading tastes identify Madeline as an “incurably romantic” (3), feminist theory alerts her to the sexual politics in the books she reads. In Updike, for instance, she finds the “last vestige of the marriage plot: the persistence in calling it ‘wife-swapping’ instead of husband-swapping.’ As if the woman were still a piece of property to be passed around” (23). Coming of age simultaneously with a great social movement like Feminism, Madeline feels empowered by the opportunities opening up for women: “to define your identity when it was being redefined, this was a freedom as great as any of the American freedoms Madeline had read about in school” (33). The famous 1973 tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs, billed for weeks as “The Battle of the Sexes” and won by the female player, defined Madeline’s generation of girls, “dramatized their aspirations, put into clear focus what they expected from themselves and from life” (33). In Madeline’s case, this meant rectifying the “injustice” represented by Phyllida’s failure to realize her dreams of becoming an actress (32). By the same token, Madeline’s admiration for Diana MacGregor, the Nobel Prize winner in biology, has to do with the latter’s steadfast dedication to her work as well as “what she was up against in the male-dominated lab” (176).
Though Madeline started her senior year in a feminist frame of mind, i.e., intent on being “studious, career-oriented, and aggressively celibate,” her resolve “went out the window” upon meeting Leonard, whose charisma and “sheer size” appealed to her romantic imagination: “His largeness, coupled with the softness—the delicacy, almost—of his voice, gave Madeline a strange fairy-tale feeling, as if she were a princess sitting beside a gentle giant” (45). Much like the heroines of her favorite novels, “Madeline required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex” (36). With Leonard, she ends up getting both—or rather, the best and worst of both “worlds.” As Madeline comes to realize, Barthes encourages readers to rethink their relationship with love not only theoretically or historically but emotionally as well, to sweep aside the sentimental fluff that has accrued to the concept of love in the popular imagination. Yet the very fact that A Lover’s Discourse reads like a diary, coupled with her mixed feelings about semiotics, gives her the idea for her term paper and Eugenides the idea for his novel: deconstructing Barthes’s deconstruction of love (87).
For one thing, Umberto Eco’s The Role of the Reader, which similarly to the “death of the author” theorized by Barthes, seeks to demote the godlike figure of the “Author” and to activate the reader, fails to unsettle Madeline’s belief in the idea of “genius.” As Eugenides wryly remarks, Madeline “had a feeling that that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature” (42). Equally off-putting is Derrida’s arcane terminology: “Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeline wondered how he expected her to get his meaning” (47). Madeline feels “safe” with a nineteenth-century novel, with its realistic, straightforward depiction of people and places. And besides the weddings in Wharton and Austen, there were “all kinds of irresistible gloomy men”—not unlike Leonard, who first strikes Madeline as “the tortured type” (48, 57).
Before they started dating, each time Madeline saw Leonard, he was “alone, looking forlorn and uncombed like a great big motherless boy” (29). Later, as she came to know him a little better, she realized how she had taken for granted many of the good things in her life. Thus, listening to his stories about his parents’ constant fighting, Madeline “felt impoverished by her happy childhood. She never wondered why she acted the way she did, or what effect her parents had had on her personality. Being fortunate had dulled her powers of observation,” whereas “Leonard noticed every little thing” (62). Being examined “so closely” by him made her feel “handled in the right way, like something precious or immensely fascinating” (63). Before long, however, Madeline noticed that Leonard liked to do the thinking for her: “He started finishing Madeline’s sentences. As if her mind was too slow” (64).
It was during this period—the manic phase of his illness—that semiotics began to make sense to Madeline, as she “fully understood” (65) the sentence opening A Lover’s Discourse: “The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude” (qtd. in Eugenides 49). Madeline could not tell anyone how she felt about Leonard, “how much she liked him and how little she knew about him,” “how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so” (49). The solitude was extreme not because it was physical, but because “you felt it while in the company of the person you loved,” “in your head, the most solitary of places” (65). The more desperate she became, the more Leonard pulled away (65). When she finally told Leonard that she loved him, he mocked her “love cry,” already edged with a “feeling of peril,” by “reading” it as Barthes did: “The figure [I love you] refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry” (67).
In the weeks following Leonard’s rejection, Madeline fell into depression, pining away in her room and immersing herself more deeply in A Lover’s Discourse. Looking back at their relationship, she realized it had been her neediness that drove Leonard away: “Love had made her intolerable. It had made her heavy.” It also occurred to her that Leonard’s point in referring her to the quote from Barthes was that “she had an unhealthy obsession with A Lover’s Discourse,” that her “wallowing” in it (as her roommates put it), only “served to reinforce” her “fantasies about love,” and that, “in evidence of all this, she wasn’t only a sentimentalist but a lousy literary critic besides” (78-9). In the midst of this emotionally difficult period, the lovelorn Madeline recognized herself on every page of Barthes’s book, which, she found, “was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain.”3 But becoming aware of love as a cultural construct does not keep Madeline from being desperately in love with Leonard; nor does she want to be “liberated from her emotions” but rather “have their importance confirmed” (79).
Madeline’s “predicament” is therefore similar to the one in which Eugenides, or any other contemporary novelist, for that matter, finds himself:
We know from our Derrida that narrative is exhausted and character a fraud. We know that we might be “mocked” for persisting in writing realist fiction. But we keep on doing it! Because we think there is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and that the novel is the best way to do it. (“The Stuff”)
A related problem comes up in the exchange between Thurston and Leonard during a class discussion of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: “how to write about something, even something real and painful like suicide when all of the writing that’s been done on that subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?” (28). Puzzled by the unemotional fashion in which Handke treats his mother’s suicide, Leonard points out that “If I was going to write about my mother’s suicide, I don’t think I’d be too concerned about being experimental. … I mean, wasn’t anybody put off by Handke’s so-called remorselessness? Didn’t this book strike anyone as a tad cold?” (27-8). After all, “if your mother kills herself it’s not a literary trope” (28).4 Thus understood, Eugenides’s approach to the raptures and ruptures of college love serves as a foil, or supplement to the theory which is “supposed to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise” (87).
The novel, it bears repeating, emphasizes the centrality of emotions to Madeline’s identity as a woman embodying “the kinds of hopes and fancies that most of us might at her age have entertained” (Gordon). The night before graduation, Abby and Olivia finally talk Madeline into going to a party with them, but once there, Madeline realizes that other men, no matter how “hot,” fail to attract her. “Her desires were nontransferable. They had Leonard’s name on them” (85). This explains why the next morning, she feels disgusted with herself for having slept with Thurston, her hangover merely the “physiological expression” of “emotional turbulence” (91). Her parents do not see Madeline graduate, for, upon hearing that Leonard is in hospital, clinically depressed, she rushes to Providence Hospital to visit him (105). The story of how Leonard ended up there—which is later retold from his own perspective—reveals his struggle with insomnia, his exhaustion as well as his inexhaustible loquaciousness, all of which help paint the picture of a “disintegrating mind” (107). Madeline finds it “painfully awkward” to be around him in his condition, for she “instinctively avoided unstable people.” Part of her “script” is to be “positive, privileged, sheltered, exemplary.” And yet, the flow of events that led to her presence in this hospital room makes her recognize that “she and a mentally ill person were not necessarily mutually exclusive categories” (122).
The “strange buoyancy” that fills Madeline as she learns that Leonard’s depression was triggered by their breakup is the first indication that deep down, she may enjoy the power she has over him. From what Leonard tells her, he found their relationship emotionally overwhelming given that he came from a family of alcoholics for whom disease and dysfunctionality were “normal,” but not feeling. In his family, unlike in a “loving, sane” family like Madeline’s, “we didn’t go around saying we loved each other. We went around screaming at each other.” So when Madeline told him that she loved him, Leonard “sabotaged” both of them (125). His self-esteem has hit rock bottom: “I’m damaged goods” (125). To Madeline, his insecurity masks an “intensity” that drew her to him in the first place and that compels her to stand by him and see him through the whole ordeal: “Had she known from the outset about his manic depression, his messed-up family, his shrink habit Madeline would never have allowed herself to get so passionately involved. But now that she was passionately involved, she found little to regret. To feel so much was its own justification” (126; emphasis mine).
As soon as Leonard finishes his incompletes, they both move to Pilgrim Lake Lab, where Leonard has a fellowship to do cancer research (127). During all this time, Madeline devotes herself to “nursing” Leonard “back to health,” putting up with his mood swings, with the side effects brought up by high doses of lithium, from weight gain and sluggishness to decreased libido and self-doubts about his intellectual abilities. Feeling “vulnerable, frightened” and “confused,” one night at the end of August, she kisses Mitchell Grammaticus outside a bar in New York, before fleeing back to Leonard’s sickbed in Providence (166). She rationalizes that “she deserved one night to cut loose after her virtuous summer” (182). To a certain extent, however, Madeline’s feelings are not only contradictory but also self-serving, especially upon hearing that a friend has a crush on Mitchell: “She wanted to keep Mitchell for herself, even while denying him. There was no end to her selfishness” (183). Leonard’s “neediness” appeals to her because “There was something pleasing about having the big Saint Bernard all to herself” (170). But tenderness sometimes gives way to cruel thoughts, as when, after he fails to perform sexually, she regrets meeting him: “He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it” (190). Later, when Leonard regains his libido and fulfills her sexual fantasy, Madeline cannot help wondering: “Did it all come down to the physical, in the end? Is that what love was?” (351). At other times, she feels suffocated by his presence:
It was as if Leonard had brought his hot, stuffy little studio apartment with him, as though that was where he lived, emotionally, and anyone who wanted to be with him had to squeeze into that hot psychic space too. It was as if to love Leonard fully, Madeline had to wander into the same dark forest where he was lost. (344)
Though her duty to Leonard comes first (179), Madeline does find the time for her own academic work. In addition to rewriting her honors thesis for publication in a journal recommended by Prof. Saunders, she studies for the GRE and attends a conference on Victorian literature in Boston. Here “she senses the emergence of a new class of academics,” the “Victorianists,” who are intent on reclaiming women writers’ essential contribution to literary and cultural history (178). Just as Leonard keeps his condition secret at the lab, so Madeline tries to hide it, albeit unsuccessfully, from her family. When her mother and sister visit her in Cape Cod, Madeline hopes that Alwyn’s marital crisis will deflect attention from her relationship with Leonard. Madeline sympathizes with her sister, who complains that Blake is a “fifties dad” (188) and she a fifties housewife, her former, “hippie” self having become increasingly obscured by the chores that come with marriage and motherhood (195). When Alwyn finds the lithium bottle in the bathroom medicine cabinet, it becomes clear to all of them that Madeline’s own relationship is not immune from problems either (196-97).
Madeline marries Leonard “in the grip of a force much like mania,” an intense happiness brought about by a convergence of factors—his weight loss and vitality, his tremendous help with her grad school applications, and last but not least, his sheer sexual prowess (351). In accepting Leonard’s proposal, Madeline listens to her heart, rather than her mother’s warnings about what it means to be married to a manic-depressive. Nevertheless, though angry at Phyllida’s “closed-mindedness,” Madeline fears that her mother might be right. Her fears are confirmed during their honeymoon in Paris, where one mishap follows another as Leonard’s condition keeps deteriorating. His erratic behavior, strange appearance, and then his disappearance from their hotel in Monaco, only to be found later on the beach, suffering from psychosis and minor injuries—all this made Madeline realize that “she’d never accepted—had never taken fully on board—the reality of Leonard’s illness” (363).
With nowhere else to go after Leonard’s recovery, the newlyweds move in with Madeline’s parents. As her mother predicted, Madeline becomes the “trembling wife, the ever-watchful custodian,” alert for the warning signs of her husband’s suicidality:
It was as if her own heart had been surgically removed from her body and was being kept at a remote location, still connected to her and pumping blood through her veins, but exposed to dangers she couldn’t see: her heart in a box somewhere, in the open air, unprotected. (371, 372)
Having been accepted into Columbia University, Madeline hopes they can put their life—and marriage—together in New York City, where they go apartment hunting together. She knows that Leonard feels emasculated by her decision to rent a place he cannot afford, a decision that also reminds him of the social chasm between them: “The sad truth was that any place that Leonard could afford would be a place Madeline would refuse to live in” (374). She feels hopeless, for nothing seems to cheer him up, not even a friend’s party at which they run into other Brown people, Mitchell among them. What is worse, Madeline feels that Leonard’s suffering is “sharpened by the knowledge that he was inflicting it on her” (375). The subject of the conversation that Leonard and Mitchell engage in at the party is revealed only later, in the novel’s very last pages, and it is not Madeline, as we might expect, but religion. In order to understand the implications of this exchange for the two male protagonists, as well as its impact on their relationship with Madeline, we need to turn to their “books,” “Brilliant Move” and “Pilgrims,” respectively, and peer more deeply into their hearts and souls.
The Tortured Type
(Barthes qtd. in Eugenides, Marriage 122)
To some critics, Leonard Bankhead’s bipolar disorder, combined with his charisma, intelligence, and his penchant for wearing bandanas and chewing tobacco suggests a portrait of the late author David Foster Wallace. The author himself, however, has dismissed this as a rumor started by New York Magazine’s online Vulture site: “I think they are reading too much into the bandana. I was thinking Gun N’ Roses and heavy metal guys, but what can you do?” (“Interview”) Whether intended or not, the resemblance between Leonard and Eugenides’s late contemporary is there, particularly in the way the former exposes and excoriates the model of the selfish and calculating individual that has become central to the workings of American society. As Leonard believes, the “American formula for success” leaves no room for emotions like doubt and fear: “So many people at college were jacked up on ambition, possessors of steroidal egos, clever but cutthroat, diligent but insensitive, shiny but dull, that everyone felt compelled to be upbeat, down with the program, all systems firing, when everyone knew, in his or her heart, that this wasn’t how they really felt. People doubted themselves and feared the future” (108). Fueled by honesty and compassion, his phone conversations during the manic phase of his illness are, at best, “a kind of art and a form of ministry” (108). At their worst, however, they are an “unmodulated recitation of his young life’s failures,” a litany of complaints and self-accusations that alienate his friends (108-9). There is soul-searching, and then there is navel-gazing; Leonard engages in both, which adds depth to his character.
In presenting Leonard’s case history from Leonard’s own perspective, Eugenides takes on “the imaginative challenge of what it would be like to live inside the head of an ambitious manic genius” (Agger). Agger is also right to observe that, “in Eugenides’ hands, classic realism remains a trusty tool for nailing down mental states, such as mania.” Likewise, Jessica Grose is impressed with how “accurately” Eugenides captures “the depressive brain space.” Leonard sees himself as “messed up biologically because of genetics and psychologically because of his parents,” the two “planet-size beings who orbited his entire existence,” both of them alcoholic, emotionally stunted, unhappy in their marriage and thus holding the key to his own unhappiness (256, 283). Eugenides deftly links the source of Leonard’s “Disease,” as he personifies it, with the criminal history of the house in which the latter grew up in Portland—a house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall: “And it seemed like the thing that had been murdered in the home was their family” (236). By the time Leonard turned fifteen, his parents’ marriage was over. His father remarried and moved to Belgium, while his mother “retreated to her bedroom, leaving Leonard and his sister Julie to get themselves through high-school by themselves” (235-36).
In the absence of traditional role models, Leonard had only himself to rely on. The prelude to the Disease was not chemical or somatic, but manifested itself as a melancholic state, which “flattered” him that he “felt more than most people,” that he was “more sensitive, deeper” (236). He suffered the first bout of depression in the fall of his sophomore year of high-school, when he was overcome with a sense of “impending doom, of universal malevolence.” The world became a dark place for Leonard, who actually thought that his vision had been impaired somehow (238). In the junior year, he felt suddenly motivated to become a good student, but the energy he channeled into his studies bordered on mania (243). Excelling at school made the Disease seem more like a blessing than a curse, but once in college, he experienced the highs and lows of “true mania,” a “rush of euphoria” followed up by “utter collapse.”
Leonard’s volatile disposition affects the power dynamics in his relationship with Madeline, bearing out the painful truth of Gillian Rose’s statement that “there is no democracy in any love relation, only mercy” (60). The Barthes incident represented a pressure point for Leonard, who acted “cool and cerebral, figuring that by keeping Madeline in doubt, he could bind her to him more closely” (249). After they make up and move in together, it is Leonard who becomes the needy, vulnerable one, his happiness “compromised by the constant fear of losing her again” (249). Madeline’s calling her friendship with Mitchell “Platonic,” at least “on her end,” only increases his torment (262, 263). Upon her return from the conference in Boston, her “excitement about her future seems “all the more vibrant against Leonard’s sudden lack of it,” depleted as he feels of energy, curiosity, and “animal spirits” (270). The more he thinks about Madeline, the less he knows who she is, and so he can only hope that “love transcended all differences.” What he does know is that Madeline resents being “hostage to his moods,” that she expects “autonomy” in her relationship with him (280).
Reduced to its “basic constituents (sand, sea, sky),” the world outside the Pilgrim Lake Laboratory offers “the perfect environment for depression” (247), but the competitive environment of the lab itself, along with the high dosage of lithium, takes its toll on Leonard, who finds himself failing at the easiest tasks, such as keeping the lab samples straight. Since his future depends on Madeline as well as his research fellowship, he conceives of his “brilliant move” as a way of keeping Madeline, defeating Phyllida, and outwitting his supervisor, Prof. Kilimnik, all at once (284). He is determined to show “backbone,” to “power up,” a choice of words suggesting his need to tilt the balance of power in his favor. His “brilliant move” involves self-regulating the lithium dosage, which Eugenides compares to “keeping an engine operating at maximum efficiency, without overheating or breaking down” (284). The ultimate solution to all of his problems, however, is to propose to Madeline: “One brilliant move deserved another: Marry me!” (293).
A Jane Austen novel would end here, having nothing to say about what happens next, since it is what happens before marriage that matters: “the meeting, the raptures of love, and the emotional construction of a new world for two” (Kaufmann 94). As already seen, however, Leonard’s and Madeline’s marriage rests on a shaky foundation, riddled with problems to which no brilliant solution exists. The last time we see them together is at Dan Schneider’s party in New York City. Insisting that he will never recover and using an analogy with yeast cells, which he studied in the lab at Pilgrim Lake, Leonard hints at the necessity that they part ways: a yeast cell’s ideal state is to be diploid, but in an environment with a lack of nutrients, “the diploids break into haploids again. Solitary little haploids. Because, in a crisis, it is easier to survive as a single cell” (381-82). Before long, he commits another “necessary violence” (244): he makes himself disappear from Madeline’s life again, this time fleeing down the steps of the subway and jumping onto the train before its doors close (383).
Leonard’s decision makes sense not only in the light of the analogy above but also in that of his long conversation with Mitchell about religion. It is no accident that besides biology, the other major that Leonard pursued at Brown was philosophy, in which he got interested for the same reason Mitchell is fascinated with religion: “the eternal verities. To learn how to die, et cetera” (46). The two first met during a survey course on Eastern religions. Scientifically inclined, Leonard deems religious faith irrational, but he is impressed with Leonard’s argument that Gandhi was “essentially a Christian,” or that “truth wasn’t the property of any one faith, and that if you looked closely, you found a ground where they all converged” (260).5 At their friend’s party, Leonard shares with Mitchell his own specific variety of religious experience he had on his trip to Europe that “had changed his attitude about things” (400). “He was on a beach, he said, in the middle of the night. He was looking up into the starry sky when suddenly he had the feeling that he could lift off into space, if he wanted to.” Leonard insists that though he was technically insane at the time, the experience was not a hallucination, but rather “the most lucid moment” of his life and its most awe-inspiring one too. Asked whether the experience qualified as religious, Mitchell answers that “mystical experiences were significant only to the extent that they changed a person’s conception of reality, and if that changed conception led to a change in behavior and action, a loss of ego” (401). Leonard leaves Mitchell with the thought that, emotionally and intellectually, he is ready to make the leap of faith, but that his “legs won’t budge” (401). In a way, of course, they do budge when he runs away from Madeline before he can inflict further suffering upon her.
Throughout their conversation, having experienced “the immensely satisfying embrace of Bankhead’s intelligent and complete attention,” Mitchell “understood why Madeline had fallen in love with him, and why she had married him” (401). Reaching this understanding involves a “loss of ego” on Mitchell’s part as well, for not only can he no longer hate Leonard but he cannot help respecting him for wanting to save Madeline from becoming “collateral damage” to his Disease (401).
The Spiritual Seeker
and wasn’t that what faith was all about?
(Eugenides, Marriage 226)
It is through Mitchell Grammaticus, with whom he shares many biographical details, that Eugenides further emphasizes how necessary suffering and self-transcendence are to managing love’s difficult dialectic between the will to possess and the capacity to give and, implicitly, to attaining what the Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton called “wisdom in love” (I Have Seen 241). Both Eugenides and Mitchell are Greek-Americans from Michigan who attended Brown University, where they took a lot of religious studies, traveled around the world, and worked as volunteers at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta. For the most part of The Marriage Plot, Mitchell undergoes a crisis of meaning that reflects his fragile grasp on truth—the truth about himself, about Madeline and Leonard, and about God. Seeking answers to the riddle of existence, he turns to such spiritual visionaries as Saint John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Saint Teresa of Avila, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Merton, whose books “reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things” (203).
Mitchell’s search is not purely intellectual, though, for inspired by Merton’s conversion tale Seven Storey Mountain, he contemplates becoming a Catholic (148). Moreover, Mitchell’s own spiritual journey changes the tenor of his existence by allowing him to experience the truths of God in action. As Mitchell comes to understand, the manifestation of God’s presence is “not something speculative and abstract,” but “concrete and experiential,” belonging not so much to the order of knowledge as to the “order of love” (Merton, I Have Seen 40).
The main reason Mitchell cannot give himself wholeheartedly to his spiritual quest is that his heart belongs to Madeline. Throughout The Marriage Plot, Mitchell is torn between his mystical passion and his earthly desires for Madeline, which he finds impossible to reconcile. Karen Virag is bothered by how quickly Mitchell’s “obsession” moves “from the transcendent (God) to the trite (Madeline).”6 More sympathetic to Mitchell, Agger writes that Eugenides recreates the “romantic tine in a young man’s life when you feel destined to marry a particular girl and a Thomas Merton passage can knock you over.” Although, or rather because she recognizes that he is “just the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with” (15), Madeline would not return his feelings, thinking of him as a friend and nothing more. To Mitchell, however, their friendship is not real because it only works on her terms (19).
His “long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” with Madeline began as they were taking refuge from a toga party in the laundry room of her dorm during freshman orientation (69). That occasion, when he caught an exhilarating glimpse of Madeleine’s “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast,” has been indelible in his mind in all its sensory details (71). The few times when the two went on anything resembling a date—to a student theater production or poetry reading—she made him feel that he was out of her league, both socially and romantically (72). Gradually, they drifted into different circles until their sophomore year when Madeline invited Mitchell to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Prettybrook. Inside the Hannas’ house—a hundred-year-old Tudor—“everything was tasteful and half falling apart,” which Mitchell interprets as evidence of “shabby gentility,” of “Wasp thrift in its purest form” (74). On his last night there, Mitchell had the opportunity to kiss Madeline when she came in his attic guest room wearing only a T-shirt and asked him what he was reading, but he did nothing (76).
Back in Providence, upon hearing that Madeline was dating Leonard, Mitchell retreated into himself, “to lick his wounds” (93). He found solace in the books he read for his religious studies classes, particularly the one called Religion and Alienation in 20th Century Culture, taught by Prof. Hermann Richter, seizing upon it as “the perfect way” to end his college career (96). In studying for this class, Mitchell sought to “diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in,” along with everyone he knew, to find out “why he was here, and how to live.” The different cases collected by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience make Mitchell aware of the “centrality of religion in human history and, more important, of the fact that religious experience didn’t arise from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences, either of great joy or staggering pain” (93). One passage in particular, about the neurotic temperament, resonates with him: in this temperament, James writes,
we have the emotionality which is the sine qua non of moral perception; we have the intensity and the tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one’s interests beyond the surface of the sensible world. (qtd. in Eugenides, Marriage 93-4)
In Mitchell’s case, it is the gap between desire and satisfaction, between ideal—which he eventually recognizes as misplaced—and reality that sustains his yearning for self-transcendence.
At Professor Richter’s recommendation, Mitchell considers applying for a full scholarship at Princeton Theological Seminary but not before taking a year off to travel (99). At the end of the summer, after saving up enough money, he and his roommate Larry plan to backpack through Europe and then go to India to work as research assistants for Professor Hughes in the theater department. Given all the difficulties facing him—the recession, his non-marketable degree, and the “fresh rebuff” from Madeline the morning of their graduation—Mitchell looks forward to his trip, in which he sees a fresh start. Remembering a line from Meister Eckhart, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” he wonders “if he was supposed to erase himself, or his past, or other people, or what” (103). During the graduation ceremony, as he walked down the stage waving back at his parents, Mitchell “felt ten years old again, tearing up, choked with feeling for these two human beings who, like figures from myth, had possessed the ability throughout his life to blend into the background, to turn to stone or wood, only to come alive again, at key moments like this, to witness his hero’s journey” (117). Since coming east to college, however, Mitchell has felt the need to “wash the Midwest off himself” and immerse himself into the high-brow culture to which Larry and his parents introduce him (132). The journey he is about to undertake marks another stage in this process of self-making, of “establishing a conception of yourself outside of college, the town you came from, who your parents are and what they expect you to be” (Agger).
In late August, after a summer of “desperate employment” (131) in Detroit, as a cab driver and busboy, Mitchell sets out with Larry on their round-the-world trip. Their first stop is in Paris, where they are supposed to stay with Larry’s girlfriend, Claire, a women’s studies major on a year-abroad program. Mitchell eventually decides to leave the two alone and check into a hotel not only because he understands their need for privacy but also because he wants to avoid becoming the target of her “feminist rage.” Indeed, Claire’s feminist politics, shaped by her reading of New French Feminisms, make Mitchell uneasy. Thus, opposing the idea of a gendered divinity, and in particular Claire’s conception of God as masculine, Mitchell argues that, according to the mystics, “God is beyond any human concept or category” (137). While admiring the force of her will, Mitchell cannot help noticing that “under the pretense of becoming a critic of patriarchy, Claire uncritically accepted every fashionable theory that came her way” (143). This, again, is precisely what Eugenides tries to avoid in the “dialogue” he carries with theory in The Marriage Plot.
On the other hand, as Mitchell himself realizes, the anger he feels at Claire is “misdirected,” as he is “really mad at Madeline” (143) for leading him on and giving him false hopes. His anger is balanced by the rationalization that Madeline’s going out with Bankhead was “a good thing,” for “she needed to get guys like him out of her system. She needed to grow up, as Mitchell did, too, so they could be together” (143). Sneaking off to churches any chance he gets, Mitchell lights votive candles, “always with the same inappropriate wish: that someday, somehow, Madeline would be his” (201). His initial reaction to Madeline’s letter he picks up at the American Express office in Athens further reveals his self-delusion and immaturity: Madeline’s “fidelity” to old-fashioned things, such as a vintage typewriter, “made it clear that Bankhead was wrong for her and that Mitchell was right, and he hadn’t even opened [the letter] yet” (213). When he does open it, Mitchell interprets Madeline’s “tiny handwriting” as suggestive of a “repressed wish,” namely, her attraction to him (325). But instead of thrashing the letter as a reminder of the earthly things from which he should detach himself, Mitchell shoves it deep inside his knapsack with the intention to read it later. Recovering his “emotional equilibrium” depends on his thinking about Madeline two or three times a day instead of ten or fifteen (213). He also knows that, from a mystical perspective, enlightenment requires not the waning of desire but its extinction. “Desire didn’t bring fulfillment but only temporary satiety,” which meant that even if he did get what he wanted, he would sooner or later tire of her and pursue another object of desire, or “ideal.” Mitchell cannot help wondering “how much of his desire to marry Madeline came from really and truly liking her as a person, and how much from the wish to possess her, and, in so doing, gratify his ego” (160). Or, as he asks himself later, after reading Tolstoy’s A Confession, what if his love for Madeline was “only a perverted form of self-love”? (207).
The woman who approaches Mitchell at the AmEx office in Athens has her own conversion tale to share. As she tells Mitchell, she became a Christian because living for herself made her feel empty inside. She gives him a pocket New Testament, along with a card and phone number to call her when he feels ready to receive the Lord in his heart, which he does after reading Madeline’s letter. In it, Madeline confesses to having gone off to college “prepared to be as unemotional and dastardly as a guy” only to be thrown off by Mitchell, who “appeared in that little window of opportunity.” “Our relationship,” she says, “has always defied categorization” (219). So does her letter, which speaks to her confusion about her life and her relationship, and which Mitchell reads as a “devastating document” (220). She reveals that she had been thinking about sex on their train ride together on that Thanksgiving break and that she had come up to the attic intent on having sex with him, but he “did exactly Nothing” (218). Taking this to mean that he had “failed to seize” the chance she gave him that sophomore year, Mitchell feels he was “destined to be a voyeur in life, an also-ran, a loser. It was just as Madeline said: he wasn’t man enough for her” (221). She insists that she is serious about Leonard and that aside from their recent “slip-up,” which she attributes to their both being drunk, she no longer sees Mitchell as “a friend who wasn’t a girlfriend and wasn’t a boyfriend” but as “an importunate male” (218, 219).
To the extent that the letter brings Mitchell’s personal defects into painful clarity, it “felt like a verdict on his entire life so far, sentencing him to end up here, lying on a bed, alone, in an Athenian hotel room, too weighed down by self-pity to go out and climb the goddamn Acropolis. The idea that he was on some kind of pilgrimage seemed ludicrous” (223). He has been lying to himself, pretending to be somebody he is not. Sick of “craving, of wanting, of hoping, of losing” (161), he calls the woman from the AmEx line. “Maybe listening to a woman going on about ‘living for Christ’ represented the exact sort of humbling that Mitchell needed in order to die to his old conceited self” (225). Climbing up the Acropolis, he gets down on his knees and starts praying, “aware inside himself of an infinite sadness” (226). To his disappointment, he is unable to speak in tongues, but then it occurs to him that love and faith might be two sides of the same coin—that the only consolation for his unrequited love is “that twin passion – the passion of faith” (Rose 59). To Mitchell, this kind of passion is most fully embodied by Mother Teresa, whose dedication to “the poorest of the poor” emerges as a manifestation of divine love (155). As he reads in Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God, “Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying is overflowing with love, as one senses immediately on entering it. This love is luminous, like the haloes artists have seen and made visible round the heads of the saints” (162).
Not surprisingly, of all the places Mitchell visits during his travels, Calcutta is the only one that feels “real” to him because he is here for a purpose—relieving the suffering of others—and not merely sightseeing. Like the other volunteers for Mother Teresa’s noble cause, Mitchell tries his best to follow the guiding philosophy inspired by a quote from Matthew 25:40: “Whatsoever you do for the least of My brothers, that you do unto Me” (306). No matter who they were—nuns, married couples, students, world-travelers—or where they came from, the volunteers shared the belief that “by some alchemy of the soul,” they “looked into a dying person’s eyes and saw Christ looking back” (306). Mitchell, however, is “uncomfortable aware” of falling short at the “difficult, messy tasks” (303) this kind of commitment involves.7 He helps serve lunch and dispense medications, but is afraid to bathe the men’s diseased bodies (306). He wants to think that having his hair cut off is “sort of a cleansing process,” and not a sign of vanity, as one of the volunteers presumes (313). Walking around the city, praying and meditating, taking in a world that is vastly different from anything he has known, Mitchell comes to know what Merton described as being “in the presence of God.” “It was something every child knew how to do, maintain a direct and full connection with the world. Somehow you forgot about it as you grew up, and had to learn it again” (314).
Partly because of the influence of Merton’s Gethsemani journals, Mitchell’s letters from India are “documents of utter strangeness,” filled with detailed descriptions of the “endless horror” confronting the poor, the sick, and the dying (315, 319). The one time he attended mass at the Mother House to see Mother Teresa, he caught a glimpse of her feet—“cracked and yellow—an old woman’s feet—but they seemed invested with the utmost significance” (307). For a moment, when asked to carry an emaciated man to the lavatory, Mitchell “wasn’t frightened any more. He was ready for whatever he had to do. This was it. This was what he’d come for” (319). But then, when he has to bring a bedpan for another patient, he gives in to the “sweet impulse that ran through his every nerve” and leaves the home, “right past Matthew 25:40, and up the steps to the bright, fallen world above” (321). At the Indian Railways office, he buys a ticket all the way to Nepal, and, judging by the speed with which he prepares for his trip, Mitchell seems like “someone making a getaway” (322).
What ultimately short-circuits Mitchell’s spiritual journey is not his squeamishness but his neurotic obsession with Madeline. Before leaving Calcutta, he sends her an aerogram in which he implores her not to marry Leonard (324). Having failed in his search for the “ultimate reality,” he would settle for “a few mundane realities,” such as going to divinity school and marrying Madeline, with whom he imagines living together as “two studious people” in New Jersey or New Haven (326). Mitchell’s wish-fulfilling fantasy is based on the claim that the physical distance between them notwithstanding, he can feel what she is feeling (325). At the same time, this intimate access to Madeline’s heart, her “innermost chamber,” along with the self-knowledge he gains during his travels and the empathic bond he establishes with Leonard, is also what enables Mitchell to finally abandon his fantasy of marrying her:
He despised himself. He decided that his believing that Madeline would marry him stemmed from the same credulity that had led him to think he could live a saintly life, tending the sick and dying in Calcutta. It was the same credulity that made him recite the Jesus Prayer, and wear a cross, and think he could stop Madeline from marrying Bankhead by sending her a letter. (392)
Madeline never gets Mitchell’s letter, but even if she did, it would be out of character for her to leave Leonard for him. Mitchell’s “chronic credulity” (394) flares up again during his one-month long stay at with Madeline and her parents at Prettybrook as the latter try to find Leonard and clarify Madeline’s situation. From talking to his mother on the phone, Phyllida learns that Leonard is in Oregon and that he has gone to a cabin in the woods with an old high-school friend. Alton’s lawyer advises him to get an annulment on the grounds that Leonard is refusing contact and that he is mentally ill (398). This Madeline refuses to do, clinging to the hope that she can still save Leonard. Awkwardly positioned as the one expected to “maintain communication among the parties,” Mitchell finds her parents more sympathetic to Madeline than she gives them credit for, both of them suffering on her account (399). When Madeline asks Mitchell what she should do, his answer, which would have been easy before his conversation with Leonard at Schneider’s party, is now complicated by the empathy, even affection he now feels for his onetime rival. The distance between them has collapsed too.
Moreover, Mitchell senses that as much as Madeline wants him around, her feelings about him have not changed in any significant way. He therefore decides that “making a move” on her would be “unfair” since it would mean “taking advantage of her sadness” (403). It is Madeline who makes the first move and causes his resolve to weaken. In a reprise of the scene during the Thanksgiving break, she comes up to his attic guest room ostensibly to show him the journal that has just published her revised thesis, “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot.” Once she opens the shoe box containing the sex toys her sister had given her for her fourteenth birthday—a present Ally called “Bachelorette’s Survival Kit”—the temptation becomes too hard to resist on both sides. Making love to Madeline, Mitchell finds himself “confronted with the physical reality of what he had long imagined,” but as a result of the “uncomfortable tension” between them, the experience does not feel real to either one (403). For Mitchell, the source of the tension lies deep inside himself. Suddenly, “as if he was truly in touch with his Deep Self and could view his situation objectively, Mitchell understood why making love to Madeline had felt as strangely empty as it had. It was because Madeline hadn’t been coming to him; she’d only been leaving Bankhead.” After opposing her parents all summer, Madeline was giving in to the necessity of an annulment” and turning to Mitchell as “her survival kit” (405).
An essential part of Mitchell’s own survival kit is the “spirit of inclusiveness” he experiences during the Quaker meetings at the Friends Meeting House in Prettybrook, despite the fact that, still haunted by shame for running away from Kalighat, he does not feel entitled to illumination (387, 388). Like the Quakers, he apprehends God’s presence as profoundly personal, and at the same time as the ground of all being, in a word, as love. Mitchell has taken to heart Merton’s concept of love that reaches over to both self and other, and draws them together (No Man, 31). As Merton writes, “We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.” That means accepting life as a great gift not because of what it gives us but because of what it enables us to give to others (No Man, 31).
Mitchell’s “gift” to Madeline comes not in the form of a marriage proposal but as a literary question: from the books she read for her thesis,
was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? (406)
Admitting that none of the books she has read for her thesis ends like this, Madeline smiles gratefully and, to Mitchell’s question whether she thinks that would be a good ending, she answers “yes” (406). Her answer calls to mind the last word of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy as she lies in bed, waiting for Leopold to return to her at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In her turn, Madeline may be waiting for Leonard to return to her, or maybe not. Realizing that Madeline is not his soul-mate after all, Mitchell is ready to move on: “She was his ideal, but an early conception of it, and he would get over it in time” (406).
The openness of the ending fits in with the potentially endless process of growing up, a process that involves an ongoing reckoning with one’s limitations. By weaving in strong emotional connections among the main characters, Eugenides affirms a vision of love as an interpersonal and transpersonal relationship—a “kind of knitting of souls” (Eugenides qtd. in Brown)—that serves to bring Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell together rather than tear them apart. As we follow the tortuous path of their becoming, we come to appreciate the author’s skill at combining passion and intellect, the spiritual and the sensual, the heart’s affections and the body’s afflictions. In fact, the intellectual mediation provided by the texts around which Eugenides threads his protagonists’ perspectives does not in any way diminish the intensity of the emotions they experience. The marriage plot may be a matter of (literary and cultural) history, a thing of the past, but love, however differently inflected, is still credible as an emotion because it follows the inviolable codes of the heart which are irreducible to theory or ideology.
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1 See Judith Ryan’s recent book The Novel after Theory for an insightful analysis of novels that talk back to theory. The two academic novels she discusses are David Lodge’s Small World (1984) and Malcolm Bradbury’s Doctor Criminale (1992), both of which are shown to lampoon theory in an extravagant way. ↩
2 As Eugenides has pointed out in a recent interview for Slate, while theory had—and still has—meaning for him, he found it “comic,” even “excessive” the way people almost “took it up as a religion” (“Interview”). One such person is Thurston Meems, another student in the Semiotics class, who finds it hard to introduce himself “because the whole idea of social introduction is so problematized” (25). ↩
3 Recent research into the neurobiology of emotion shows that cognition and emotion are in fact intimately bound up with each other. Thus Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley have traced each individual’s “Emotional Style,” at least partly to activity in brain centers involved in reason, logic, cognition, and volition” (“Tired of Feeling Bad?”) ↩
4 Thurston agrees that Handke’s real mother killed herself in a real world and Handke felt real grief, but reminds Leonard that “Books aren’t about ‘real’ life. Books are about other books” (28). ↩
5 Mitchell’s argument regarding Gandhi’s respect for Christianity and the common ground shared by Christian and non-Christian spiritual traditions is indebted to Thomas Merton, according to whom, “Gandhi’s dedicated struggle for Indian freedom and his insistence on non-violent means in this struggle—both resulted from his new understanding of India and of himself after his contact with a universally valid spiritual tradition which he saw to be common to both East and West” (I Have Seen, 60). ↩
6 Virag concedes that Eugenides does a “very creditable job of conveying the thrust and parry of love relationships well,” but finds “the new romantic order” represented by the novel’s love triangle much less appealing than Jane Austen’s world because she cannot imagine “a more unlikable cast of main characters.” ↩
7 Referring to his own stint at the hospice, Eugenides admits to being scared and lacking charity. He was “brusquely dismissed” as a “dilettante” by a Jesuit priest,” which made him reassess his religious search at that point: “I thought either he’s completely insensitive, or he’s right and something about me is not a true seeker” (“Interview”). ↩