The “marriage plot” refers to a storytelling device commonly used by 19th century novelists such as Jane Austen and Henry James, in which the female protagonist can only cement her destiny by finding and marrying the man that will secure her happiness and financial future. Because 19th century women were extremely limited financially, politically and socially, their futures rode entirely on their ability to marry a suitable man. Although the marriage plot was central to 19th century life, it seems all but obsolete today.
However, Jeffrey Eugenides takes the idea and places it into a modern context in his latest novel “The Marriage Plot,” keenly examining how relevant the labyrinth of romantic difficulties and successes is in a contemporary society in which women’s societal positions are nearly equal to men’s, rather than blatantly subordinate.
Despite having only previously published two novels in his nearly 20 year-long career as an author, Eugenides has made a significant impact on the literary world. His first book, “The Virgin Suicides,” got significant mainstream attention even before Sophia Coppola’s film adaptation. In 2002, “Middlesex” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is considered by some scholars to be a Great American Novel in the tradition of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Eugenides returns nearly a decade later to release “The Marriage Plot.”
“The Marriage Plot” centers on three friends in the early 1980s — Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell — and follows them through their final year at Brown University and into their first tumultuous steps into the post-graduate world. Beautiful, over-achieving and slightly spoiled Madeline is at the center of an uneasy love triangle: She’s in love with the intelligent but deeply troubled manic-depressive Leonard, but spurns her friend Mitchell’s advances because she’s turned off by “the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy” she knows she should marry.
Madeline, an English major swept up in the romance of the Victorian novel even though her peers eschew such sentimentality, finds herself caught up in her own marriage plot. She finds it increasingly difficult to deal with Leonard’s deteriorating emotional state, leaving him an undesirable romantic prospect despite her best efforts to aid his rehabilitation. Mitchell, on the other hand, sets off on a journey of self-discovery in India, but finds himself unable to shake his thoughts of Madeline.
Although not quite reaching the heights of importance of his culturally explosive “Middlesex,” Eugenides continues to write with a deft confidence and deals with his subjects in an incisive and often poignant way. His privileged and self-involved characters can occasionally be infuriating, but Eugenides realizes their faults and always manages to ground them with emotional resonance and relatability. Ultimately, Eugenides seems to come to the conclusion that the marriage plot, rather than being an outmoded and tired vehicle for storytelling, is all the more complicated and fascinating in 1980 than it was in 1880.
Printed on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 as: Eugenides challenges prior marriage plot