On the other hand, the passages that deal with Madeleine’s ambivalence about having to care for Leonard—her increasing feeling of being socially trapped—are keenly insightful. At first, Leonard’s handicap becomes a means to repossess him, and she is eager to nurse him back to health. Like many partners of the mentally ill, she persuades herself that Leonard doesn’t belong among the other patients on the ward, that he was there “only because of his intensity.”
Had she known from the outset about his manic depression, his messed-up family, his shrink habit, Madeleine would never have allowed herself to get so passionately involved. But now that she was passionately involved, she found little to regret. To feel so much was its own justification.
In a way, Madeleine has fallen under the spell of mania herself—the milder hypomania she has seen, and misunderstood, in Leonard. She is seduced by his “many-branching” way of thinking, the glimpses of heightened aliveness he seems to confer. Or is Madeleine just experiencing another symptom of love, transposable to any love object, what Barthes calls the feeling of “festivity,” the “unheard-of-totality” of pleasure a person feels when in the presence of the loved one?
When Leonard is discharged from the hospital to begin the long, inevitable slog of recovery, Madeleine endures because being with him makes her feel “exceptional.” In the hermetic world of illness, where one grasps at each incremental sign of improvement, caregiving supplies it own sense of purpose. It is as if
in order to love Leonard fully, Madeleine had to wander into the same dark forest where he was lost…. The further Leonard receded from other people, the more he relied on Madeleine, and the more he relied on her, the deeper she was willing to follow.
No marriage plot would be complete without a second, rival suitor, and Mitchell Grammaticus plays the role. After spending Thanksgiving during sophomore year with Madeleine and her family, Mitchell decides he is going to marry her. He knows she is “out of his league”—in the sexual marketplace at Brown, Mitchell must rely on wit, not physical allure—but the certainty of their eventual union goes “through him like electricity, a feeling of destiny.” Like solid, sincere Levin in Anna Karenina, he is the suitor with better intentions, the one we wish to see succeed. Mitchell is no semiotician. The questions he asks are not about the entire culture but about his own futility: Wouldn’t it be wiser to extinguish our desires than try futilely to satisfy them until the day we die? But his desire for Madeleine won’t go away.
After the Thanksgiving visit, they drift into different circles. Madeleine’s interest in him is tepidly that of a friend, not a lover. When he glimpses her on campus with a boyfriend (not Leonard) he bitterly sees in her face “the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.”
In a surprising, and somewhat daring, move, Eugenides points Mitchell to religion, not philosophy. If Madeleine is obsessed with A Lover’s Discourse, Mitchell’s “texts” are Tolstoy’s A Confession, Teresa de Avila’s Interior Castle, and William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience—all of which he pores over in his search for clues for a private way to God. (Curiously, Mitchell is also reading Thomas Merton’s A Dark Night of the Soul, a book that does not exist.) His quest is experimental. We can feel him testing himself, wondering if he has a real talent for faith, the way an aspiring poet may wonder if he has a talent for language. But his crisis of meaning is earnest, and the way he lives it is often moving, and brave. We think we see what Mitchell cannot see: that he has confused romantic love with faith, misrecognizing his longing for one with a need for the other. Skillfully, Eugenides keeps us unsure.
After graduation, Mitchell travels to Europe, stealing away from his travel companion to make Merton-like visits to churches and cathedrals. In Athens, he receives a letter from Madeleine, informing him once and for all that they will never be together. Within hours of reading the letter, “sick of craving, of wanting, of hoping, of losing,” he accepts “the Lord.” Parting from his friend, he travels to Calcutta, hangs a cross around his neck, cuts his hair to a penitential sixteenth of an inch, and volunteers at Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes.
Here, The Marriage Plot takes on a new dimension. Barred from the beautiful flesh he desires, Mitchell attempts to immerse himself in the putrefying flesh of the dying. If Eugenides has any misgivings about Mother Teresa’s position as “the chair of a missionary multinational,” as Christopher Hitchens characterized her, or her open association with dictators such as Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, he doesn’t let on. Mother Teresa herself, glimpsed praying in a chapel with her “cracked” bare feet, is treated with reverence. True, perhaps, to the campus ethos of the Reagan years, politics in The Marriage Plot is off the radar. (I don’t recall an allusion to Reagan or any other political figure in the entire novel. The economic recession of 1982 is mentioned only in passing.) Instead, Mitchell’s energies are focused on the transformative potential of his charity.
Mother Teresa’s clinic isn’t a place for medical care but a place to die, and the volunteers are there to ensure that the destitute don’t die alone. They are also there for themselves, engaged in an extreme spiritual exercise. They massage and bathe the skeletal inmates with the belief that “by some alchemy of the soul” they are really handling the body of Christ. Mitchell can’t make this leap. He admires his fellow volunteers; they are “healthy-minded” people who, in William James’s definition of the term, refuse to feel unhappiness when it “is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it, as if it were something mean and wrong.”
Mitchell isn’t one of them. He is burdened with what James would call “the neurotic temperament” of the seeker. He is like the man in the old joke who works to make it to heaven only to discover he doesn’t like anyone there. Unlike the other volunteers, Mitchell is afraid of the destitute, horrified by their wounds and nakedness, distraught at the prospect “of his hands touching their urine and excrement.” Faced with the needs of an especially soiled inmate, he flees, “knowing that he would regret this moment for a long time.”
In fact, he appears to suffer little regret, and returns to resume his life in America. The impulse to flee is “sweet.” His mystical quest has served its purpose, enabling him to reclaim both his potency and devotion—the twin requirements of romantic love. I found myself wondering if his experience of “walking around Calcutta in the presence of God,” of “disappearing to himself” with a feeling of “ecstatic tranquility,” has been his way of expressing love in the absence of the loved one. He has amplified his self under the guise of relinquishing it, the mystic’s paradox and trap. Mitchell comes close to the same conclusion when he asks himself if his love for Madeleine is really a form of self-love in disguise.
Near the end of The Marriage Plot, Eugenides subtly invites us to ponder whether Mitchell’s brief spiritual ecstasy and an “awe-inspiring” vision Leonard had at the height of his mania are significantly different. Mania has been described as an overwhelming feeling of oneness with a god-like force, a feeling of holiness that the manic-depressive is understandably reluctant to discount as merely an expression of madness. What if faith, like Barthes’s love, is also a series of identifiable sensations to which we assign a false value?
When all is said, Professor Saunders is proved right: marriage has become an afterthought, a “retrograde” gesture, as one of Madeleine’s friends puts it, an inconvenience that can be efficiently undone with a good lawyer. The real risk lies with love, whether it is a construct of the mind or not.