Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel begins with the despair of a broken-hearted twenty-two-year-old woman. The setting is Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where it is graduation day for Madeleine, as the young woman is called, and her literary circle of friends. The tone is satirical, but gently so. Eugenides also attended Brown as an undergraduate and, in his fifties now, he looks back at the self-dramatizing ways of his young characters with avuncular tolerance. It is an effective attitude, for the most part, though sometimes it imbues the writing with a slightly clinical aura, the characters like captured specimens in a jar. Madeleine is attractive, intelligent, well-off—a banquet of possibilities seems to lie ahead of her. Her parents are what we would expect them to be: protective, progressive, entering the late stage of a long, successful marriage.
The year is 1982, three short decades ago, and one of the pleasures of The Marriage Plot is the subtle way in which it calibrates how much things have changed. We are before e-mail and text- ing, when a certain mystery of absence was still at play in human relations and periods of silence were less apt to be regarded as a social insult. Personal messages are handwritten and then lost, shared land-line phones often busy. Posted letters arrive after the intended recipient has moved away, and the network of news about acquaintances and friends is more subject to chance.
The cause of Madeleine’s despair is Leonard, also a senior at Brown, who recently broke up with her. Like the hermaphrodite narrator of Middlesex, Eugenides’s second novel (with which otherwise The Marriage Plot has little in common), Leonard has been struck with genetic lightning, in his case manic-depression. It was in a state of rising depression that he ended their relationship, possibly to punish himself, possibly to protect Madeleine from what he knew was to come. Unaware of Leonard’s illness, Madeleine imagines him callously enjoying himself without her. In reality, he is in the psychiatric ward at Providence Hospital.
A common element of psychosis is megalomania—every sign and gesture, menacing or joyous, radiates like jet fuel toward the suffering self. The relief of objectivity is beyond attainment. Romantic love, Eugenides’s novel suggests, may be its own form of mania: the narrowing of the mind to a single object of desire. “Every lover is mad, we are told. But can we imagine a madman in love?” asks Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse, a book that plays a pivotal part in The Marriage Plot. The answer that Eugenides eventually supplies to Barthes’s question is satisfyingly complex. But what is love, exactly? One of the novel’s epigraphs is the famous maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.”
It is a small leap from this to Denis de Rougemont’s argument, three hun- dred years later, that romantic love is an invention of Western cultural propaganda.1 Why would we willingly plunge ourselves into a state of suffering with no apparent practical benefit? Barthes takes this a step further, anatomizing love as a series of symptoms and mind states like those of any sickness: it will pass if we allow ourselves to see it for the objective phenomenon that it is. Whether Eugenides believes this is unclear. But I suspect he agrees with one of his characters who remarks that although A Lover’s Discourse intends to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise, “it reads like a diary.” Barthes must have suffered from the disease himself. Why else would he go to such pains to find a cure for it?
Madeleine becomes obsessed with the book. But instead of dispelling her fantasies about love, it reinforces them. A Lover’s Discourse was
a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain…. If you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being “in love” was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny…. The problem was, it didn’t work…. She didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed.
For Madeleine, who shuns the unstable as if they were members of an alien tribe, this is her first prolonged bout of anguish. The uncertainty of her future alarms her. “No!” she cries when her mother tells her she intends to renovate her bedroom, with its custom-printed wallpaper of scenes from Ludwig Bemelmans’s children’s book Madeline that has soothed her since she was a little girl. One of the ways in which Eugenides makes this gleaming, unextraordinary specimen of her class and time so sympathetic is through her passion for literature. Madeleine is an English major “for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Eugenides overstates the case when he tells us that the sight of an abandoned, jacketless hardback
ringed with many a coffee cup…pierced Madeleine’s heart…. [She] would sit down on the bed and read for a little while to make the sad old book feel better.
But the point is made: she is an old-fashioned, nonideological devourer of books, a fact that slyly feeds the novel’s larger theme. Her senior thesis adviser, Professor Saunders, is an unpopular seventy-nine-year-old specialist in the Regency and Victorian eras. Madeleine treats him less as a mentor than as another abandoned old book she feels sorry for and wants to make feel better. It is Saunders who alerts us to the aesthetic challenge Eugenides wants us to believe he has taken on. In Saunders’s opinion,
the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.
As it happens, 1982 was around the time that the study of semiotics at Brown was in its heyday. The program had become an informal lab for breaking the code of popular culture and received literary ideas, a bulwark against the “bourgeois” way of reading. Eugenides was a student in the program and those in the know (I am not one of them) will recognize the atmosphere he describes:
Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France.2
It’s all in good fun, even when the satirical blade is sharp. Eugenides is more interested in the bewitching effects of semiotics than in the content of the theory itself. For all its attempts to expose the bourgeois conspiracy underlying the entirety of Western culture, what the theory actually spawned among undergraduates was a language of self-concealment. On the first day of class a student finds it “hard” to introduce himself “because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.” The same student refers to “reason” as a “privileged,” and therefore discredited, “discourse of the West.” Since there is no other means of discourse, semioticians are forced to rely upon reason to explain their theories. “At the same time,” says the student, “you have to be aware that language is by its very nature unreasonable. You have to reason yourself out of reasonableness.”
Realizing that she has been laboring on the uncool side of the English Department, Madeleine enrolls in Semiotics 201. But she doesn’t quite buy it. Her instincts seem to tell her that there is no science of reading, and that its unscientific quality is precisely its value. I suspect that Madeleine is speaking for her creator when she complains that semiotic theorists
wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.
Eugenides’s trick is to have written an updated version of Professor Saunders’s ideal novel while steeping his protagonists in a cultural theory that seeks to annul the very validity of the endeavor. His send-up of semiotics becomes a defense of the novel we are reading. There exists an agreement of meaning between writer and reader that isn’t up for grabs, he seems to be saying. We can’t think ourselves out of the pleasures of being told a story any more than we can think ourselves out of being in love.
As befits a novel whose title is a homage to the domestic intrigues of nineteenth-century England, The Marriage Plot is told in a staunchly traditional realist manner. An all-knowing, omniscient narrator dispenses or withholds information as he or she sees fit, entering the minds of the three main characters at will, with the commonplace cinematic addition of quick jump cuts between them. I don’t miss the magical folkloric rhetoric of Eugenides’s earlier novel Middlesex (“I unravel my story, and the longer the thread, the less there is left to tell”) or the haunted collective voice of his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, but as a realist, he isn’t always persuasive. The weakest, most predictable sections of The Marriage Plot are the ones that revolve around Leonard’s illness. The psychiatric ward is presented with just enough borrowed detail to have a rushed, CliffsNotes authenticity.
Leonard is on the mood stabilizer lithium, and we are diligently taken through the drug’s side effects—hand tremor, lethargy, metallic taste in the mouth, emotional detachment—as if Eugenides were filling in a page of a coloring book, safely keeping within the pre-drawn lines. We know that Leonard misses his old animal spirits, but we fail to miss them with him. Depression, we are told, is a “monotone monologue delivered by an unbathed guy lying on his back in the middle of the floor.” But this sounds more like being drunk or stoned. When mania strikes, it is a comic book mania, replete with flamboyant cape and out-of-control gambling at a casino. “True mania,” writes Eugenides, is “a rush of euphoria.” You
were completely captivating, completely charming; everybody loved you…. It was like having a wild party in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, “Come on. One more!”
Eugenides describes here the familiar phase of hypomania when the illness, in its uniquely seductive way, gives a temporary feeling of pleasure that drives the manic-depressive higher. But true mania is far more complex, and terrifying, than this. A diabolical feature of manic-depression is that when you are most fully yourself, you are in the most danger. During full-blown mania the drive to communicate, to impart, is at its apex, while the ability to do so is completely lost. It is a state of extreme isolation, a semiotic nightmare in which your complicated and only language is one that no one else can speak or understand. Eugenides never investigates the gap between Leonard and his illness. Consequently, he lacks a credible inner life, and his manic-depression becomes merely a prop to the story.
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.