The Marriage Plot

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I was browsing through Sundari Carmody's photography on the weekend, struck by how her images managed to capture the tone and style of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Her photographs here express visually what I loved about the novel: its unique drift from clarity to obscurity in its representation of love, intimacy and identity. And above all, its suggestion of love and loss as deeply entwined. I find it hard to express why her images are so appropriate for my thoughts here, so I hope it becomes apparent as I write.

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I finished reading The Marriage Plot recently, and I devoured it quickly. It's an easy book to read, despite its foray into academic theory. There has been a somewhat mixed reaction to Eugenides's latest novel, after his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Middlesex. I can understand, for example, why so many were disappointed with the briefness of his latest novel. The Marriage Plot suggests a narrative structure that has much potential to be deepened. But I liked it, simple as that. There's an honesty, humour and maturity to this novel that I enjoyed, and it gave voice to a lot of doubts and unspoken feelings that occur within an intimate relationship.

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The plot of the novel is simple. Eugenides creates a love triangle between three college students at Brown University in the early 1980s: Madeleine, a relatable heroine who harbours a deep love for Victorian literature; Leonard, a brilliant biology student who suffers from manic depression and with whom Madeleine falls in love; and Mitchell, a Religious Studies student who in turn falls in love with Madeleine. This is a story about familiar experiences: coming of age, life after college/university, love, loss, the complexity of sharing your life with someone else. It is told in an unpretentious manner and appeals to a sense of common humanity. It's also brilliantly written, taking you inside the mind of the characters with a skill very few authors possess.

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If I were to name one big flaw which personally bothered me about The Marriage Plot, it would be that Madeleine should have been developed to the same extent as Leonard and Mitchell. If one of the basic premises of the novel is Eugenides's reworking of the traditional marriage plot found in nineteenth-century literature, then he needed to give her a more developed characterisation. After all, the marriage plot was based around female characters, giving women one of the few artistic avenues via which to explore significant social issues. There was potential for Eugenides to modernise such a plot with Madeleine, but I often felt she got lost in the more dominant characterisations of Leonard and Mitchell.

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Still, this novel is full of insight and humour, poking fun at those who take themselves too seriously. For example, one poser student in Madeleine's Semiotics 211 class in college grandiosely proclaims that "Books aren't about 'real life.' Books are about other books" (p. 28). There are very few books that capture all the pretentious posing and pseudo-rebellion that so many enact in their university years. There's always one person in a group who likes to string together well-rehearsed philosophical statements, borrowed from other people's minds, in an attempt to sound cool. Eugenides not only satirises this type of "coolness" culture in academia, but also seeks to move beyond it. He shows us that books aren't just about other books, they are also about real life. They provide glimpses into our vulnerabilities, our flaws and the incompleteness of our lives. They comfort us, support us. In the face of pretentious posing, Eugenides presents the literary word as a form of sincerity rather than erudite alienation.

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Madeleine herself only becomes interested in her Semiotics class when she is introduced to Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: an indescribable book about the complexities of being in love. She responds to it by relating it directly to her own life: "The more she thought about it, the more Madeleine understood that extreme solitude didn't just describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she'd always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it" (p. 53).

Madeleine doesn't approach A Lover's Discourse as theory but as reality. Which is how I think most theoretical positions should be tested. I don't see the point of theory for theory' sake, I want theory to open a door into my life, not shut me from it. Madeleine's approach to Barthes summarises how I often reacted to theoretical texts when I was an undergraduate student, and her statement about the loneliness of being in love is a prime example. Is there anything more strange than being in love? A state which is supposed to bind you intimately with another person, but which ironically also results in showing you the limits of truly understanding another human being.

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This is honesty, there are no idealised flights into romantic "oneness" with Eugenides. We are fed by an unhealthy dose of idealised love, and when it doesn't meet these high expectations, when another human being doesn't "complete" us, we revert to disappointment. Eugenides shows us that it's actually okay to feel loneliness and that other people don't exist to complete us, they have their own stories to live out. When Madeleine later questions the wisdom of falling in love with a manic depressive, she realises that life doesn't offer an ideal marriage plot, and that "to feel so much was its own justification" (p. 126). In many ways, Eugenides provides an alternative theory of love based on what we actually feel, rather than what we think we should feel.

I would have liked this to have been explored fuller. When the pages ended, I realised I wanted more. This may be a bit of a shortcoming in the novel, but it also signifies the extent to which it was successful in drawing me into its world, leaving me with questions that I wanted answered.

Has anyone read The Marriage Plot? If so, what did you think of it?

Image credits: All images are by Sundari Carmody and are used here with permission. Visit her website, flickr and blog to see more of her work. Thanks Sundari.