The Marriage Plot
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Rodrigo Corral|
|Publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
The Marriage Plot is a 2011 novel by American writer Jeffrey Eugenides. The novel grew out of a manuscript begun by Eugenides after the publication of his novel Middlesex and portions are loosely based on his collegiate and post-collegiate experiences. Most of all, as its clever title announces, The Marriage Plot is both a realist story about marriage and a postmodern, metafictional commentary on the kind of story it tells.
The novel was well received by many critics, and it was featured on some year-end best of 2011 lists.
The story concerns three college friends from Brown University—Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus—beginning in their senior year, 1982, and follows them during their first year post-graduation.
- Madeleine Hanna: an English major at Brown University and the daughter of affluent parents. During the course of the novel she is concerned with the writing of her undergraduate thesis, which revolves around the concept of "the marriage plot" in the 19th century novel. She is also ensnared in a love triangle of sorts with classmates, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus.
- Leonard Bankhead: a Biology major with a side interest in Philosophy he quickly becomes Madeleine's paramour. Following graduation they move to Cape Cod where Leonard takes up postgraduate work in a biology lab. It is also noted that Leonard suffers from Bi-Polar disorder and this informs many of his actions and thought processes throughout.
- Mitchell Grammaticus: a Theology major who spends the majority of the novel lusting after spiritual truth and Madeleine. Following graduation he and classmate, Larry, embark on a lengthy tour of Europe and India.
Eugenides began the novel after the publication of his novel Middlesex. He intended to write a “more tightly dramatized” novel than Middlesex, taking place over a year or several years, rather than 70. Originally, the plot concerned a debutante party, or a large family reunion, but after writing about the arrival of a daughter Madeleine to the party, he changed the plot to focus on her and her education.
Certain aspects of the novel are autobiographical. Mitchell, like Eugenides, is Greek, was raised in Detroit, carried a briefcase in college, and traveled to India after his graduation. Eugenides has said that certain traits of Madeleine and Leonard are also drawn from his experience and personality. Eugenides chose to set the novel at Brown, his alma mater, after choosing not to set it at a fictional college, saying that it would have been "too much trouble for what it was worth".
There is some debate as to whether the character Leonard is based on the author David Foster Wallace. Although Eugenides and Wallace were not friends, both were acquainted with Jonathan Franzen. Critics have pointed out that both Leonard and Wallace wear a bandana, chew tobacco, study philosophy, and struggled with mental illness. Furthermore, both the character and Wallace had an interest in time and the passage of time and at least some of Leonard's dialogue appears to have been directly lifted from an article about Wallace. Eugenides has denied that the character is based on Wallace and cited two inspirations for the bandana: that the practice was fairly common among his friends at Brown, and that he was basing Leonard off of "Guns N' Roses and heavy metal guys".
An oft-quoted work in the novel, particularly by Madeleine, is Roland's Barthes' seminal work A Lover's Discourse: Fragments.
One scholar notes, "Barthes points out that, “Those who seek the proffering of the word (lyric poets, liars, wanderers) are subjects of Expenditure: they spend the word, as if it were impertinent (base) that it be recovered somewhere” (154). Moreover, “no love is original,” being “born of literature, able to speak only with the help of its worn codes”.
Honors and awards
As noted above, the novel was generally well received by critics. W. Deresiewicz wrote, "'The Marriage Plot' is a new departure...intimate in tone and scale.... It’s about what Eugenides’s books are always about, no matter how they differ: the drama of coming of age.... It possesses the texture and pain of lived experience." C. Romano called it "the most entertaining campus novel since Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons."
However, reviews of the novel were not without criticism; Eleanor Barkhorn, writing for The Atlantic, praised the heroine Madeleine as "smart" and in many other ways realistic, but nonetheless criticized the novel for its lack of "believability" in depicting a modern female character whose "relationships [with almost all other women] are characterized more by spite than affection". Barkhorn noted that the book is not unique in this manner, making reference to The Bechdel Test and stating that The Marriage Plot was a prime example of the storytelling trend the Test criticizes: "[t]here are countless other Madeleines in modern-day literature and film: smart, self-assured women who have all the trappings of contemporary womanhood except a group of friends to confide in".
Barkhorn also compared the book to the early female authors of the literary genre that Eugenides references in both the novel and its title, opining that writers such as Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, in depicting close homosocial relationships among women, were more psychologically accurate than Eugenides. She suggested that Madeleine's lack of such relationships was implausible in context ("If this were the way women really acted with their friends, it would be fine. [...] But real women don't treat their friends this way," "Women who love books, as Madeleine does, are especially prone to close friendships with other women [...] [i]t seems impossible that Madeleine would have made it through four years at Brown without meeting other women who'd rather discuss literature than men"), and further suggested that this aspect was detrimental to the book, declaring the plot's conclusion to be an "infuriating, preposterous ending" that "is only possible because Madeleine lives almost entirely in her own head, with no one to give her trusted counsel" and further adding that "[t]here are many ways rewriting the traditional marriage plot might be good for women, but editing out rich, supportive friendships isn't one of them".
- "Summer Fiction: Jeffrey Eugenides". The New Yorker. 6 June 2011. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- "The Euphoria of Influence: Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot | Public Books". www.publicbooks.org. Retrieved 2018-05-19.
- Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Marriage Plot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. ISBN 978-0-374-20305-4 WorldCat
- Alter, Alexandra (30 September 2011). "Nine Years After 'Middlesex'". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- Grose, Jessica (10 October 2011). "Questions for Jeffrey Eugenides". Slate. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- Hughes, Evan (9 October 2011). "Just Kids". New York Magazine. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- Paskin, Willa (20 July 2011). "There's a David Foster Wallace Character in Jeffrey Eugenides' New Novel". Vulture. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- "The DFW-Eugenides Plot". McNally Jackson. 21 July 2011. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- Bruni, Frank (24 March 1996). "The Grunge American Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
- "A 'Marriage Plot' Full Of Intellectual Angst". NPR.org. Retrieved 2018-05-19.
- "AMERICANA: "A Difficult Dialectic: Reading the Discourses of Love in Jeffrey Eugenides's _The Marriage Plot_" by Laura E. Savu". americanaejournal.hu. Retrieved 2018-05-19.
- Larson, Mark (25 November 2011). "Books of the year 2011". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- Miller, Laura (6 December 2011). "The best fiction of 2011". Salon. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- Laura Miller "The best fiction of 2011", "The best nonfiction of 2011" - Salon, December 8, 2011.
- William Deresiewicz, "Jeffrey Eugenides on Liberal Arts Graduates in Love," The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 2011.
- Carlin Romano, "A Campus Novel about Leaving Campus Behind", Chronicle of Higher Education September 4, 2011.
- Eleanor Barkhorn, "What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn't Understand About Women", The Atlantic October 12, 2011.