The title of Jeffery Eugenides’s latest novel alludes to the tradition of ‘marriage plots’ featured prominently in 19th century fiction. The more restrictive nature of marriage during this period gave rise to complex questions about the compatibility of romantic love with marriage, and cast issues of gender, power, religion, and personal freedom into sharp relief. For the 19th century novelist, the marriage plot proved a rich mine of resources; it offered them both a motor to propel their stories forward and a wealth of subject matter to explore. Among those to espouse marriage plots are such major figures as Austen, Tolstoy, Eliot, James, and Hardy. Of course, each of these writers reimagined the marriage plot in his or her own way. The idyllic marriages with which Austen’s novels conclude, for instance, are later contrasted in the series of disastrous marriages that crowd 19th century fiction—such as the marriage between Gwendolen Harleth and Mr Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda, or the one between Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady.
In an interview with The Guardian, Eugenides recounts how, in writing The Marriage Plot (2011), he attempted to “access the energies of the original marriage plot,” while somehow “violating the tradition.” He adds that, while the marriage plot “doesn’t function anymore as a viable plot for a novelist,” it still raises intriguing questions about love in our post-modern age. “People are still falling in love, getting married, searching for their soul mate,” he says; and his most recent novel is largely an exploration of how preconceived notions of romantic love—especially notions derived from the traditional marriage plot—continue to shape the way we conceive of love, even in a society whose increasingly liberal attitude toward marriage renders such notions archaic.
At the center of Eugenides’s Marriage Plot is the novelist’s attractive, English-major heroine, Madeline Hannah. Set at Brown University in the early 1980s, the novel follows Madeline’s quest for true love, as she is forced to choose between two suitors: the intelligent, but manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead and the more stable, though less intriguing, Mitchell Grammaticus. Meanwhile her college reading assignments—a mélange of 19th century fiction and French semiotic theory—complicate her notions of ‘true love.’ The ideas she gleans about love from writers like Austen and Dickens are complicated by the Barthes she is assigned for her semiotics seminar. Indeed, throughout the first half of the novel, Madeline is frequently seen reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, a theoretical deconstruction of love. Ironically, it is precisely as she realizes how the idea of love is socially constructed—“people would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about,” reads the epigraph of Eugenides’s novel—that she happens to fall in love with Leonard Bankhead.
To sum it up briefly (skip down a paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens next in the book), Madeline marries Leonard, suffers through his fits of manic depression, is eventually abandoned by him, and tries to rebuild herself after the breakup. Such an abandonment, of course, does not have the same potency it would have had in a 19th century novel, but it still presents Madeline with serious problems about her future life.
The Marriage Plot marks a departure in approach for Eugenides, and points to its author’s shifting interest in different fictional elements. In his 1993 debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides experimented with style and voice; he learned to shape the contours of a novel. In Middlesex, he learned how to fashion a complex and compelling plot; it is, by far, the most sprawling, the most prodigious of his novels to date. In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides’s primary interest seems to center around his characters. Nowhere in Eugenides’s fiction is such an intimate focus on character sustained for so long. And yet, for all the attention he pays to his characters, for all the effort he spends in evoking them, they remain, up until the very end, less interesting than we could have wished for. They are ‘complex,’ but in simple ways; and much of this has to do with the author’s failure to tap into the interiority of his characters’ relations, to remain, almost always, toward the surface of things.
The Marriage Plot nevertheless offers much for consideration, and prompts us to reflect on the way we conceive of love today.