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October 25, 2011 / Rachel Bednarski

Review: The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.

In a surprising move away from the experimental narratives of his previous novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, Jeffery Eugenides shuns controversy and tries his hand at a (supposedly) conventionally structured, third person narrative with The Marriage Plot. The novel follows Jane Austen scholar Madeleine, manic-depressive Leonard, and religious Mitchell, the three points of a love triangle, from their first meetings at Brown University in the 1980s, when French literary theory reigned. The Marriage Plot is not, of course, quite as conventional as it pertains to being. The novel offers a juxtaposition of realism and postmodernism which highlights the emotional engagement lost to the reader with the demise of realism. Eugenides has said in relation to this idea, ‘We’ve gone so far out with deconstructing literature that it’s almost in need of being reconstructed’ – and this is precisely what he endeavours to do with The Marriage Plot.

As its title suggests, the novel revolves around the theme of the marriage plot – the narrative movement that modernism rebelled against and which propelled the narratives of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James and remains the central device in most modern-day ‘chick lit’ As Madeleine’s professor states,

‘The novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely…What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?’

Eugenides deconstructs this nineteenth-century portrayal of marriage as being the ultimate goal in nineteenth-century literature, and simultaneously attempts to reconstruct literature as fiction, as opposed to experimentation, from its apparent undoing by the modernists and postmodernists. In taking the literary tropes of the classic love-triangle – Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell fall nicely into the stock nineteenth-century novel characters of the beautiful maiden, the suitor and the rival suitor –  and third person narrative and placing them within the twentieth-century context of deconstructionist theory Eugenides both challenges and modernises the classic marriage plot,  which cannot function in the twentieth-century that no longer believes in the absolute sanctity of marriage.

Essentially, the novel can be broken down into two parts. The theory-dense beginning of the novel is stimulating, insightful and novel.  The characters function as mouthpieces for religious, literary and philosophical theory, with Derrida, Barthes, and Culler playing central roles within a realist framework – both Madeleine and Leonard deconstruct their relationship through the framework of Barthes. Offering a meditation upon deconstruction, semiotics and Barthian ideas of love, the novel itself declares that ‘books are about other books’ and this book certainly is. The novel is highly self-conscious, with sentences such as, when Madeleine becomes embarrassed in class – ‘People blushed in 19th-century novels but never in contemporary Austrian ones’, but as such metafictional devices are for the most part embedded within the characters’ narratives, they do not break the allusion to realist tradition. But, of course, the marrying of such postmodern ideas with traditional realism must lead to displacement, and this is where the novel falls down. The second part becomes dominated by the convoluted depiction of Leonard’s mental illness, which whilst initially poignant and enlightening, rapidly descends into tedium as it detracts from the intelligence of the first part, which suggests a provocative, even ground-breaking ending which it ultimately fails to deliver. I was left feeling rather battered-over-the-head with it by the end, which, sadly, left me unable to sympathise. It’s tragic to witness the demise of dangerously intelligent Leonard, trapped inside his own head, but under the weight of portraying such a heavy subject matter the characters become diluted as the novel progresses and its central theme collapses entirely, with the ending feeling particularly perfunctory.

The novel’s zenith is reached while Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard are at university and I feel Eugenides could have taken the philosophical theory that he touches upon at this time much further. The novel becomes absorbed in the insular worlds of the individuals, forgoing the grand theoretical insights of its beginning, which I suppose nicely reflects the contrast between university hedonism and real life, which dilutes the creative intellect of university. Subsequently, the novel is almost verging on the hysterical realist.

Despite its dense philosophical questioning, the novel is not terribly well written, the language is standard, and at times even lazy – much of this is, of course, due to the device of the third-person omniscient narrator. Some of the sentences are even cringe-worthy, and whilst it may be viable to assume Eugenides is being faithful to the realist style in his use of such language, ultimately, it merely smacks of accessibility and a striving for book sales. With The Marriage Plot, Eugenides somehow manages to bridge the gap between scholarly criticisms and chick-lit readability. Furthermore, in a post-feminist age and when part of the novel’s premise is that women need no longer remain confined within patriarchal marriages, the fact that the central female is largely underdeveloped and dependent and gushing clichéd lines – ‘Madeleine had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him’ – and that, after a weekend away with their boyfriends, a group of girls are depicted as ‘mock-complaining about being too sore to walk’  is really quite a concerning flaw.

If any meaning is to be gleaned from the rift between the novel’s inadvertent divide it’s that we reach our intellectual peak at university then escalate into monotonous, adult lives which become dominated by twentieth/twenty-first-century-induced emotional suffering from there. And then we get divorced.

There’s been a lot of hype since Julian Barnes’s slim The Sense of an Ending was placed on the Booker Prize shortlist, concerning whether such a short work is deserving of winning an award intended for novels. I have never been concerned over a novel’s length if what it ultimately says important and well written. Having just finished The Marriage Plot I feel even more that there is certainly a place for more concise works of literary fiction if the alternative is rambling. Whereas both Eugenides and Barnes’s latest works explore dense philosophical and psychological ideas, Eugenides becomes preoccupied with a ‘will they won’t they’ plot and incorporating vast research on a very specific aspect of his novel at the expense of other ideas, whilst Barnes retains his hold on the reader by keeping theory at the forefront of his narrative and eliminating anything unnecessary to his books central premise. The Marriage Plot, despite its promising, and indeed captivating, opening chapters does, to its detriment, possess that ability to ‘zip along’ that contributed to this year’s Booker Prize’s well publicised fall from grace.

Despite my less than favourable overall review, there was a great deal about The Marriage Plot that I loved; I devoured the first chapters and eulogised manically its considerations of literary and philosophical theory. It’s a celebration of nerdiness, and I revelled in celebrating my own bookish nerdiness to the full through my reading of the novel. Eugenides is a highly intelligent and exceptionally talented writer, he proved this with his first two novels, but I feel his has fallen into the realms of pandering to readability. Sadly, I didn’t find Eugenides latest effort quite the metaphorical ‘axe’ it pertains to be.

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3 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. blookblog / Nov 9 2011 4:42 pm

    Yes, I totally agree with you! Although I found the theoretical ideas that Eugenides explores very interesting, for me, they aren’t successfully incorporated into fiction. It in no way compares to either of his previous novels.

    I really enjoyed your review, particularly your thoughts on Mitchell 🙂 And I agree with you, Madeleine was incredibly frustrating in her inability to function outside of her relationships with Leonard and Mitchell, and I’m not even convinced she was intentionally written that way for any meaningful reason,

    Let’s hope Eugenides doesn’t become a cliché by waiting another ten years to release the next one.

  2. theoncominghope / Nov 7 2011 3:31 pm

    I’ve loved Eugenides for so long that The Marriage Plot felt like a serious letdown, both thematically and narratively.

    What’s even more disappointing is that it might be a DECADE before we see another Eugenides novel (seriously, he’s like the Terence Malick of books).

    My full review can be found here: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/11/book-review-jeffrey-eugenides-marriage.html

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