Marjorie Morningstar (novel)
First edition cover
|September 1, 1955|
Marjorie Morningstar is a 1955 novel by Herman Wouk, about a woman who wants to become an actress. Marjorie Morningstar has been called "the first Jewish novel that was popular and successful, not merely to a Jewish audience but to a general one". In 1958, the book was the basis for a Hollywood feature movie starring Natalie Wood, also titled Marjorie Morningstar.
Marjorie Morgenstern, born 1916, is a New York Jewish girl in the 1930s. She is bright, beautiful, and popular, with many admirers. Her father is a prosperous businessman who has recently moved his family from a poorer, ethnically Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx to Manhattan's Upper West Side. Her mother hopes that the change of neighborhood will help Marjorie marry a man with a brighter future.
Marjorie aspired to become an actress, using "Marjorie Morningstar" as a stage name. ("Morningstar" is the literal translation of "Morgenstern" from the original German.) She begins with her school's (Hunter College) production of The Mikado, and lands the title role. As a result, she meets Marsha Zelenko, who will become her best friend (for a while). Marsha encourages Marjorie in her quest, and helps her get a job as a dramatic counselor at the summer camp, where Marsha teaches arts and crafts. During the summer Marsha persuades Marjorie to accompany her on an excursion to South Wind, an exclusive resort with a staff of professional entertainers. There Marjorie meets Noel Airman, an older man who has won some fame as a composer, as well as Wally Wronken, a younger man who hopes to become a playwright.
Marjorie idolizes Noel, who can sing, dance, compose, and speak several languages. They begin a relationship that determines the next four years of her life. He tells her that he has no interest in marrying, or fitting in with the middle class life that he tells her she will ultimately want. Having changed his birth name from Saul to Noel to escape his Jewish origins, he mocks her Jewish observances (such as her unwillingness to eat bacon), and taunts her for her 'Mosaic' unwillingness to engage in premarital sex. Noel tells Marjorie that she is a " Shirley": a typical well-brought up New York Jewish girl who will ultimately want a stable husband and family, while he is embarking on an artistic career.
Over the course of the novel, neither Noel nor Marjorie finds professional success in the theater. Marjorie accepts that she will not succeed as a professional actress, and spends more of her time reading and working. Noel takes and quits stable writing and editing jobs, blaming Marjorie for motivating him to take jobs that do not suit him and for his unhappiness. He flees New York in a panic rather than marry Marjorie, saying that he will not succeed as a writer and will return to studying philosophy. Having entered a sexual relationship with him, Marjorie is convinced that her only hope is to marry Noel. She decides that the best way to persuade him to marry her is to wait a year and then pursue him to Paris.
However, en route to France, Marjorie meets a mysterious man aboard the Queen Mary. She enjoys his company, he treats her well and speaks respectfully of her religious traditions, and he helps her locate Noel. In Paris, Noel tells her how happy he is to see her, but does not notice when she is hungry or hurt. He tells her that in his year in Paris he has not actually enrolled in school to study philosophy, and that he will return to the U.S. to take another stable writing job. He offers to marry her, but Marjorie has realized that life with Noel will not make her happy, and that it would be possible for her to fall in love with someone else.
She returns to New York free of her infatuation with Noel, and quickly marries, no longer caring whether Noel would describe her as a "Shirley". The novel concludes with an epilogue in the form of an entry in the diary of Wally Wronken - the only one of the book's characters who did manage to have a successful artistic career. Wally idolized Marjorie as a young man, and meets her again 15 years after she marries. Marjorie has happily settled into a role as a religious suburban wife and mother. Wally recalls the bright-eyed girl he once knew, and marvels at how ordinary Marjorie seems at 39.
The character name Airman is a translation to English of the Yiddish expression Luftmensch.
The novel was controversial among Jewish writers and religious figures as well as among secular intellectuals. In particular, the depiction of New York Jews was criticized by Leslie Fiedler and Norman Podhoretz, though others, like Meyer Levin, praised the novel.
Wouk's fictional depiction of a bar-mitzva was a particular target of criticism. In 1959 in This Is My God, Wouk commented:
I did my best to portray a bar-mitzva with accuracy and with affection. I thought I succeeded pretty well, for my pains I encountered the most bitter and violent objections from some fellow Jews. I had, they asserted, made a sacred occasion seem comical. There were comic touches in the picture, of course, but I believe these lay in the folkway as it exists, not in the imagination of the writer.
With time these criticisms have abated, and two extracts from Marjorie Morningstar have been included in a reader entitled The Rise of American Jewish Literature.
- "Books Published Today". The New York Times: 21. September 1, 1955.
- Arnold Beichman, Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction Books, 1984), p. 53.
- Arnold Beichman, Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction Books, 1984), p. 52.
- Cf. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960), pp. 41 & 249-52.
- Norman Podhoretz, "The Jew as Bourgeois," Commentary, No. 30 (February 1956), pp. 186-88. But Podhoretz also praised the novel as "perhaps the first novel to treat American Jews intimately as Jews without making them seem exotic" (ibid.).
- Herman Wouk, This Is My God (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), p. 113.
- Charles Angoff and Meyer Levin, eds., The Rise of American Jewish Literature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970).