Ah! Eugenius. Why do you do this to me? Let me preface this review by saying that this was my least favorite of Eugenides’ literary triumvirate, this book that I thought would be my favorite. That said, The Marriage Plot is only in last place because it rarely disappoints whereas The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex (favorite and second-favorite, respectively) never disappointed at all. Those are good statistics, and I’ll take a book like this any day of the week.
While reading this book I thought a lot about my opinions of the main characters and the structure of the plot and how I imagined the ending would play out. Now that I’ve finished, I find that I have something very different to say. This book changed so much from beginning, to middle, to end, that it seems like a different novel altogether from the one I began a week ago. Whereas seven days ago I was full of criticism and slightly disappointed in Eugenides, now I must willingly eat my words [thoughts]. Jeffrey Eugenius retains his title.
The Marriage Plot introduces three main characters: Madeleine Hanna, a Connecticut native with a wealthy family whose favorite authors include Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes; Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious-studies major struggling with his personal faith; and Leonard Bankhead, a fiercely intelligent, mentally ill man with a complexity that inspires love and hate from one paragraph to the next.
One of the reasons I was initially turned off to this book is one of the reasons it’s so relatable: the characters are starkly imperfect. Madeleine whines during the first one hundred pages about not being attractive to men despite the fact that every man she meets thinks she’s ravishingly beautiful, not feeling smart enough even though she’s brilliant and teachers tell her so, and generally being an insecure college student. Whether or not I found this trait exhausting because it’s familiar is too psychological for me to plumb. Nevertheless, I disliked her lack of confidence and dreaded reading about her.
Then came Mitchell Grammaticus, a thoroughly forgetful character in the first section, to the point when it became clear he was important to the plot, I couldn’t believe it. Third of the main characters is the initially dashing, problematically charming Leonard Bankhead, afflicted with manic-depressive disorder and Madeleine Hanna’s first love interest in the narrative. At first glance (even from reading the terrible back-cover description), this novel seems like a common love triangle, but if you say that at parties people will think you’re stupid, because this novel is about so, so much more.
It’s about modern relationships
The Marriage Plot is Eugenides’ most character-driven novel. It’s a novel about people. Not a suicide pact or an intersex’s memoir, just a novel about people and how they relate to each other. There are misunderstandings and emotional turmoil. There’s insecurity and unhappiness in relationships; there’s misogyny and misandry and familial discord. It’s complicated and it’s impossible to know exactly how each character is feeling at a given time because that’s how people feel—emotions are complex and Eugenides knows that.
It’s about religion
Mitchell Grammaticus, as a religious studies major and a deeply spiritual person, travels to Calcutta and volunteers for Mother Teresa. For three weeks he finds it almost unbearable to tend to the dying, finding their bodily fluids and functions revolting. As religious as he is, as moral as he is, Mitchell is not exempt from normal human weaknesses. Religion in this novel is inclusive and spiritual, spanning many cultures and many denominations, reminding us that religion is not about differences in belief but about the universality of faith and of the human condition.
It’s about mental illness
Leonard Bankhead suffers acutely from manic-depressive disorder. The manner in which his illness is portrayed in the novel makes it clear the prejudice still apparent in our culture regarding mental illness. At times, it seems as if his personality is inseparable from his illness, as if the “real” Leonard does not exist at all and he is simply a product of his manic and depressive episodes. This makes it somewhat permissible to excuse his more dubious (and at times, totally morally reprehensible) behavior as side effects of his disease, but is this interpretation fair? Do we excuse his behavior? Or do we condemn it knowing what we know about his struggle? This is the situation Madeleine is in along with the reader. We, along with her, are placed in a situation to either feel antagonism or sympathy for Leonard, which forces us to challenge our preconceptions and prejudices about mental illness.
It’s about love, in its simplest form
Not just romantic love, not just unrequited love, nor even epic love. This book is about the ability, the capacity that humans have to love and why we do it at all, as well as what to do when it ends.
It’s about self-awareness
The characters’ internal honesty sometimes had me reeling. They express the same worries and shameful desires we all have sometimes, and at points the bluntness of it made me flinch.
For example, Mitchell explores his feelings for Madeleine and discovers some selfish motivations:
How long had he been secretly hoping to marry Madeleine Hanna? And how much of his desire to marry Madeleine 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)
It might not even be that great to marry your ideal. Probably, once you attained your ideal, you got bored and wanted another. (161)
These passages of Mitchell’s honest rumination reveals a selfish tendency that all humans possess in some amount. We are all egotistical and we all, at some point, fall in love more with the idea of something than learning and loving the thing itself, even when the thing is a person. And isn’t that the problem? We’re not objects and no one is perfect.
It’s about coming to terms with the truth, a form of inner bravery
All three characters experience a moment of anagnorisis (if anagnorisis may be allowed to be non-tragic) in which they suddenly realize some truth about themselves or their lives. These moments of clarity offer yet more psychological insight into the character and usually result in a cessation of suffering, or at least the amelioration of it. The characters, at one point, all display a huge amount of inner courage that makes them more complex and in some cases, their resultant decisions are redemptive.
About the title: “The marriage plot” refers to a form of novel common during the Regency and Victorian eras in which the plot revolves around a couple’s difficulties on their way to the altar, and ends with a marriage and a “happily ever after.” In the novel, Madeleine Hanna publishes a literary essay of the same name that takes a critical look at the marriage plot device in 19th century novels. At its essence, this novel explores contemporary relationships with all our contemporary complications: awkward or just plain bad sex, divorce, militant feminism, closeted homosexuality, and yes, marriage. But if you’re looking for a neat ending a la Jane Austen, let me leave you with this caveat: though emotionally satisfying, the ending is thoroughly un-Regency.
Eugenides, J. (2011) The Marriage Plot. New York, NY: Picador.